NOV 08

Freedom from Poverty and Solidarity with the Poor

In this article, an expert explains the crucial issues involved in poverty—what it is, what causes it, who and how many are affected, the many forms of poverty around us and ways of tackling this central human problem.

Continuing poverty is one of the most pressing problems faced by humanity today. The magnitude of human deprivation is still alarming. As per global poverty update from the World Bank, almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 80 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where income differentials are widening.

The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (IDEP) is dedicated to focus our attention on the issue of poverty and the dignity of the poor. Every year, October 17th is observed as IDEP. The 2018 theme is “Coming together with those furthest behind to build an inclusive world of universal respect for human rights and dignity.”

Since 1992, United Nation has observed October 17th  as the World Day for Overcoming Extreme Poverty. The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty promotes dialogue and understanding between people living in poverty and their communities, and society at large. “It represents an opportunity to acknowledge the efforts and struggles of people living in poverty, a chance for them to make their concerns heard and a moment to recognise that poor people are in the forefront in the fight against poverty.” (UNSG 2015)

Sustainable Developmental Goals

Poverty eradication is the central theme for many of UN deliberations. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are a collection of 17 global goals set by the United Nations General Assembly in its 70th session on October 2015. Of these seventeen goals,  Goal 1 is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere, and Goal 2 is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. All other goals are collectively to contribute to ending poverty.

The global community has agreed to eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 (roughly Rs 90) a day by 2030.  According to their agreement, ‘by 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions’.

To reach the goals of poverty eradication, the global community has agreed to implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all poor and the vulnerable. So, too, to ensure that all men and women, in particular, the poor and the vulnerable, have equitable rights to resources, as well as access to essential social and health services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services.

UN policies and Plans

The UN member states have promised to build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate-related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental shocks and disasters.

The UN member states also have promised to ensure significant mobilisation of resources from a variety of sources, including through enhanced development cooperation, to provide adequate and predictable means for developing countries, especially the least developed countries, to implement programmes and policies to end poverty in all its dimensions.

Further, the global community has agreed to create sound policy frameworks at the national, regional and international levels, based on pro-poor and gender-sensitive development strategies, to support accelerated investment in poverty eradication actions.

Pope Francis: World Day of the Poor

In addition to the UN system, other state actors, such as the Holy See,  observe the Day of the Poor. The Holy see declared 18 November 2018 as the day of the poor and ‘called all to make a serious examination of conscience, to see if we are truly capable of hearing the cry of the poor.’ According to Pope Francis, ‘We are so trapped in a culture that induces us to look in the mirror and pamper ourselves, that we think that an altruistic gesture is enough, without the need to get directly involved.’

The persistence of poverty, including extreme poverty, is a significant concern for the global community, reflected through the deliberations of the United Nations. In its 72nd session, the General Assembly launched the Third United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (2018–2027), under the theme “Accelerating global actions for a world without poverty.”

Involvement of people living in poverty is essential for the eradication of poverty. The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty aims to ensure that the active participation of people living in extreme poverty and those who are left behind is a critical force in all efforts made to overcome poverty, including in the design and implementation of programmes and policies which affect them.

Creating and nurturing a genuine partnership, based on human rights, and respect for the  dignity people living in poverty are essential to building an inclusive world where all people can enjoy their full human rights and lead lives with self-respect—a necessary step towards poverty eradication.

How do we understand “poverty”?

The World Development Report (1982) defined poverty as “a condition of life so characterised by malnutrition, illiteracy and disease as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency.” Being poor is more than just material deprivation. Poverty is a multi-layered issue that concerns a person’s range of survival issues such as access to health care, the ability to influence the determinants of health, available educational opportunities and quality of life.

Poverty is a complex concept which may include social, economic, and political elements. Absolute poverty, extreme poverty, or destitution refers to the complete lack of the means necessary to meet essential personal needs such as food, clothing and shelter.

The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI)  has created a Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, which enables us a better understanding of the causes of poverty, an essential step in addressing the issue. The index offers a more in-depth measure of poverty through a checklist of “deprivations.”

The OPHI classifies poverty at an individual level.  The ten indicators of poverty are subdivided into three dimensions, Health, Education and Living Standard.  ‘For the health dimension, the measures are nutrition and child mortality, while, for education, the indicators are the years of schooling and school attendance. The standard living dimension includes access to cooking fuel, sanitation, drinking water, electricity, living space and assets.’ 

According to the OPHI report, more than a fifth (22 per cent)—or 1.6 billion people!—are considered to be poor, and 40 per cent of them live in India.

About 85 per cent of the poor are from the rural areas, where development progress remains elusive. More than half are deprived of health, education and standard of living. They are the ones living in households where educational attainment is less than five years, at least one member of the family is undernourished, and at least one child has died. Access to adequate sanitation presents challenges to 81 per cent of the poor.

Though poverty has been reducing in many countries, through the improvement in sanitation, education and health, the challenges remain for the global community in tackling poverty. It is evident that higher income does not always translate to a reduction in multidimensional poverty.

Connection between Poverty and Human Rights

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In this context, it is essential to acknowledge the connection between extreme poverty and human rights. People living in poverty are disproportionately subjected to many human rights violations.

 “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, and human rights are violated, to come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.”

Facilitating social inclusion is fundamental in assisting those left behind and enable them to overcome poverty in all its dimensions.

The commemoration of October 17 each year is an opportunity for people living in poverty to take the floor, share their experiences and expertise on how we can achieve greater social inclusion and poverty reduction, to respect the human rights and dignity of people living in poverty.

The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty underscores the importance of reaching out to people living in poverty and building an alliance around their priorities and concerns to end extreme poverty. It recognises the critical mutual roles and relationships we have with each other based on our collective and equal dignity and shared rights.

Poverty remains as one of the most pressing problems faced by India. The World Bank, in 2011 based on the 2005 Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) International Comparison Program, estimated that 23.6% of the Indian population, or about 276 million people, lived in poverty, that is, spending below $1.25 (Rs 90) per day, based on purchasing power parity.

We cannot simply blame a high population for poverty. When living standards and literary rates go up, people tend to plan their families. This has happened in the more educated parts of the country. To ask a couple to limit their number of children when they are not even sure of the next meal, is a cruel thing. We need to provide a basic minimum before people can feel they have control over their health and their future.

Caste-based social segregation and stigma, and unequal distribution of income and resources is another reason for persistent poverty in India.

Groups Most Affected in India

Older destitute women, women and children from marginalised communities,  indigenous population, members of certain traditional occupations, the urban poor, migrant workers in the informal sector—these groups do experience severe poverty in India. Traditionally oppressed classes, those who belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who continue to be subject to pervasive discrimination, e.g., Dalits and Adivasis, are disproportionally affected by poverty. With 104 million people, 47% of the rural tribal population lives below the national poverty line, compared to the national average for rural areas of 28 %. The level of poverty and malnutrition of the tribal people continues to be a significant issue. Though there are multiple programs for poverty reduction, they are seldom consulted on what is right for them, and their voice is hardly heard in any forums.

Poverty, including its extreme forms, is all around us every day, but receives little attention.  The desensitisation of society to poverty is a real scandal in India.  The destitute older widow on the road begging for survival, the orphan children who do odd jobs on the street, the pregnant mother who lost her child for lack of access to health care, the rickshaw puller whose only asset is his labour power and who is beaten up by the passenger because he insisted on the ten-rupee minimum charge for the trip he just completed—such pathetic human tragedies are all around us everyday.

The face of a traditional fisherman who laboured all night and returns home empty-handed and faces his hungry children, the face of the women waiting for their daily wages after they worked under the guaranteed employment scheme of the government, the face of the ‘Adivasi’ child waiting eagerly for the mid-day meal at the school,  the face of the  girl child who is struggling to cook a meal for her siblings with the fire from the twigs and leaves she collected,  the non-smiling flower girl at the traffic signals of major intersections in the city,  the face of the street sleeper—all these of part of our daily experiences. They are the human face of poverty.

 The poor in India disproportionally experience the violation of their citizenship rights, the impact of environmental change, urban pollution, lack of safe housing, violence, depletion of clean water, lack of access to sanitation and life-saving medicines and health care. Poverty in India particularly impacts children in a variety of different ways:  high infant and neonatal mortality, severe malnutrition, child labour, lack of education and child marriage.

The Way Out

Mass poverty and associated degradation of human dignity is not a product of fate, nor a justifiable social phenomenon. It is a product of specific structural-social arrangements, fuelled by inequitable distribution of opportunities. What is needed is the political will to introduce and execute policies and programs that will increase economic security and expand equitable opportunities for the poor and marginalised. A range of policy options is available to address acute poverty.  Creating jobs and reducing unemployment, raising the minimum wages, supporting equity in pay and benefits, providing paid leave and paid sick days, reforming work schedules that accommodate specific needs of women and vulnerable populations, increasing investment  in affordable, high-quality child care and early and primary education, ensuring and expanding  Universal Access to Health Care, ensuring that  economic growth is equitable, supporting agricultural growth and farm employment, increasing  investment in the development of infrastructure, accelerating overall human resource development, promoting decentralised non-farm employment, increasing social support benefits to the poor, promoting access to assets and credit, strengthening and expanding access to the Public Distribution System (PDS) and promoting increasing involvement of  local governments in poverty reduction and supporting the organizations of the poor and marginalised.

Poverty will remain a question of the political morality of the ruling class and of society in general. The demand for poverty eradication is not a call for charity; it is a fundamental human right. The legitimacy of any ruler should be assessed against his or her willingness and their sense of urgency to address poverty and developing poverty eradication programmes.


  • Do I try to understand why so many people are poor, although the world is rich in resources?
  • Am I truly interested in making a difference?
  • What do I do in concrete for at least a few poor persons?
  • If I am an employer, do I treat my employees justly?
  • Have I become indifferent to the poor I see around me everyday—or do I do something about it?
  • How shall we—as a family, religious community, parish or institution—observe the Day of the Poor (Sunday, November 18th) in a meaningful way?


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Dr Joe Thomas is the executive director of an intergovernmental organisation of 26 governments-partners in Population and Development. He has hosted high profile bilateral meetings in Kampala, Geneva, New York, Beijing, Dhaka, Jakarta and Senegal. He has been active for 25 years in the field of global health, population and development. He is a technical advisor to WHO in Geneva. He was the Secretary General of the 12th International Congress of AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP). As the Director of UNAIDS-Technical Support Facility (TSF) for South Asia, he coordinated the work of nearly 250 consultants in ten countries. Twitter @joethomasIN   web

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