Ending persistent poverty

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THE International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is annually commemorated on Oct. 17 to raise awareness about the need to end global poverty in all its forms everywhere. This year’s theme, “Building Forward Together: Ending Persistent Poverty, respecting all People and our Planet,” offers an opportunity to recognize those who are at the forefront of fighting poverty against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of climate change.

In adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the international community recommitted itself to the aspiration to “end poverty in all its forms, everywhere,” as embodied in the first of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Before COVID-19, nearly 1 billion people worldwide have been lifted out of poverty. In the Philippines, 6 million Filipinos were lifted out of poverty between 2015 and 2018. Official estimates show that the proportion of people in poverty across the country stood at 16.6% in 2018. The government reported that improved welfare conditions led to an expanding middle class and that the country was well on track to meeting its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) commitments. Until the pandemic hit.

COVID-19 is reversing decades of progress made in the fight against poverty in low- and middle-income countries around the world. In addition to the threat to public health, the economic and social disruption threatens the livelihoods and wellbeing of millions. In 2020 alone, 100 million people were pushed into poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Oct. 8, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched the 2021 global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). It paints a detailed picture of poverty around the world, complementing monetary measures by looking at how people experience deprivations in many of the aspects of life: quality of life, education, healthcare, and livelihood. The report showed that 1.3 billion people are still multi-dimensionally poor and are facing depravation of a wide range of basic necessities in varying degrees. The MPI offers policy makers better options to respond to the call of SDG 1 to end poverty in all its forms everywhere.

In the Philippines, the most recent publicly available survey data for its MPI estimation was in 2017 — pre-pandemic. It showed that 5.8% of the population is multidimensionally poor while an additional 7.3% is classified as vulnerable to multidimensional poverty.

Various institutions have estimated that the pandemic has likely increased the ranks of the poor, potentially reversing the gains the Philippines made in 2018 — an obvious impact of COVID-19.

Together with the Zero Extreme Poverty Philippines 2030 coalition, UNDP commissioned a survey which covered more than 18,000 poor households in seven provinces and the capital. Through the COVID Pulse PH survey, we found that nearly three-fourths of those families had their incomes decreased when the pandemic struck. Those in locked-down Metro Manila could not go to work, while those in rural areas lost access to markets for their products. Most affected were those who depended on informal sources of livelihood. And the pandemic affected not only their livelihood but also their ability to access healthcare services and send their children to school.

The situation is fragile, and the poor are in a precarious position. The Philippine Human Development Report 2020/2021 reports that the recently expanded middle class is now shrinking.

COVID Pulse PH also inquired into the assets and capabilities the poor have: majority have basic business skills, those in urban areas can work online, and they overwhelmingly embody traits they would need for the new normal: resourcefulness, initiative, and learning independently.

Poverty is not merely income deprivation but a complex web of interconnected issues. The SDGs give us an inspiration: progress on one goal is necessary for progress on the others to happen. Poverty is multidimensional. No single actor in society can claim to have the sole solution for it. A systemic approach is required. Collective action is not an option, but is a must. We need to “build forward better together.”

Beyond looking at the numbers, we must do more to listen to those who suffer the most, address the indignities they face and tackle the power structures that prevent their inclusion in society. We must be reminded that our own survival is intrinsically connected to the well-being of our planet, this means ending poverty within planetary boundaries and placing human dignity at the heart of policy and action.

Dr. Selva Ramachandran is the UNDP Philippines resident representative.