Category Archives: Ending global poverty

The Persistence of Poverty is a Political Choice

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Embed from Getty Images

In a report issued on behalf of the UN’s Human Rights Council, Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, explodes the comforting myth that humanity is finally on the verge of eradicating extreme poverty. The report, titled “The Parlous State of Poverty Eradication,” insists that the belief that we are making good progress in eliminating poverty “is unjustified by the facts, generates inappropriate policy conclusions, and fosters complacency” (p. 1). The author maintains that our good intentions to promote greater economic justice are constantly being undermined by false assumptions about the extent of poverty and stymied by flawed decisions about the most effective means to vanquish it.

The report points out that the optimism among policy professionals and thought leaders rests on the use of a deceptive standard to define extreme poverty. The official standard, the World Bank’s international poverty line (IPL), is arrived at by averaging the national poverty lines employed by the world’s poorest countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa. The line, currently set at U.S. $1.90 in purchasing power parity, is “a standard of miserable subsistence rather than an even minimally adequate standard of living” (p. 1).

On the basis of the IPL, the U.S. in 2016 had a poverty rate of 1.2 percent, though the rate was actually 12 percent. On the IPL South Africa would have a poverty rate of 19 percent vs. a real poverty rate of 55 percent, and Mexico a poverty rate of 1.7 percent vs. a real rate of 42 percent. Setting the line so low, the report maintains, is bound “to guarantee a positive result and to enable the United Nations, the World Bank, and many commentators to proclaim a Pyrrhic victory” (pp. 4–5).

The report points out that much of the progress in eliminating poverty under the Bank’s IPL is due not to any upward global trend but to developments in China, where between 1990 and 2015 the number of people below the IPL dropped from over 750 million to 10 million. If a more realistic poverty line of $5.50 were adopted, the number of poor people globally held almost steady between 1990 and 2015, declining merely from 3.5 to 3.4 billion. That is hardly a reason to proclaim an end to extreme poverty.

Even under the Bank’s line, between 1990 and 2015 the number of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East rose by 140 million (p. 9). Using this weak criterion, some 700 million people worldwide live under $1.90 a day, which is morally abhorrent in itself, but if we were to take a more realistic measure the extent of global poverty would turn out to be vastly higher and current trends discouraging.

According to the report, efforts to eliminate extreme poverty are bound to run up against two factors that will inevitably increase the numbers of the poor. One is accelerating climate change, which we are hardly addressing with the urgency required. Over the next decade an altered climate is projected to push 100 million more people below even the weak standard of the IPL.

The other major threat is COVID-19, which over the next three years will drive 176 million people into poverty at the $3.20 poverty line. The report calls COVID-19 “a pandemic of poverty” which lays bare the parlous state of social safety nets for low-income people around the world. Rates of illness and mortality expose racial and class divisions, and access to health care and financial assistance is also skewed along racial, gender, religious, and class lines. Those hit hardest by the pandemic are the “essential workers” who do not have the luxury of “sheltering in place” but are compelled to work under precarious conditions, becoming “sacrificial lambs” to keep the economy functioning (p. 9).

The primary guideposts the international community relies on for tackling poverty are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The first of the goals is an “end to poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030. Taken in isolation the goal sounds ambitious enough, but the specific targets proposed to meet this goal are “patently inadequate to actually end poverty, and the prospects of achieving them are rapidly receding” (p. 10). The tenth goal calls for reducing inequality, but the plan of implementation relies on the premise that the key to reducing inequality is continued economic growth—a shaky assumption, since history shows that the benefits of unregulated economic growth disproportionately go to the affluent.

The only viable way to end poverty, according to the report, is wealth redistribution, which would require more aggressive governmental control over the economy. However, the reigning paradigm of neoliberal ideology dictates that the market must be allowed to operate on its own, without government interference. Current attempts to achieve the SDGs therefore marginalize government action in favor of private investments and “public-private partnerships,” which usually optimize the interests of the investors over the needs of the poor (p. 12).

The report does not reject the SDGs themselves, but calls for reflection on “ways in which the overall package, including targets and indicators, can be re-shaped and supplemented in order to achieve the key goals which otherwise look destined to fail” (p. 14). One flawed premise that underlies the formulation of the SDGs is the idea that the most effective way to achieve them is through economic growth. While this premise is considered sacrosanct in neoliberal economic circles, the fact remains that the benefits of growth disproportionately go to those in positions of wealth and power. While the poor may see some small improvements in living conditions, economic disparities widen to a still greater degree and thus the old bugbear of inequality remains.

The staggering levels of wealth and income inequality in today’s world should dispel any inflated notion that the world is moving toward greater economic equity. The bottom 50 percent of the world’s population now owns less than 1 percent of total global wealth, while the top 1 percent holds 45 percent of the total (pp. 15–16). Reduction in economic inequality requires a redistribution of wealth, but figures like these remind us how far we have to go to overcome global poverty.

The report recommends global debt forgiveness as a critical factor in establishing a just international economic order. Another measure the author proposes is fair and equitable taxation, which “must be front and center in any set of policies to eliminate poverty.” Fair taxation has a significance that transcends mere economic pragmatism, standing as “a symbol of solidarity and burden sharing” and “a reflection of deeper values” (p. 16). Just tax policies would call upon wealthy individuals and successful corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, and this would require an end to tax evasion through the use of tax havens, for which the U.S. has been “the global trendsetter.” At present there are hundreds of thousands of tax havens worldwide, depriving states of as much as $650 billion in tax revenue (p. 16).

On the positive side, the project of ending poverty calls for the implementation of programs that provide universal social protection, helping people deal with the adversities brought on by sickness, disability, unemployment, and old age. Shockingly, four billion people—over half the world’s population—completely lack any level of social protection, while for many others the support available to them is far from adequate. This, according to the report, is “an extraordinary indictment of the global fight against extreme poverty” (p. 17)

The report sees this abdication of social responsibility on the part of governments to stem from the pressure of neoliberal policy agendas, which favor minimal taxation and result in the imposition of harsh austerity measures as a way to balance budgets. When governments are denied the resources they need to serve their populations, the task of providing social services falls upon private or institutional philanthropy. This relies on the good will of the donor agencies, but fails to establish a genuine systemic solution to the persistence of poverty.

According to the report, the dependence on philanthropy as the main way of helping the poor perpetuates a vicious cycle. Billionaires amass their fortunes through policies that tax labor more than capital and facilitate tax avoidance. Deprived of the funds they need to maintain programs of social uplift, governments are compelled to rely on private charity to provide for the needs of their populations. The wealthy philanthropists then demand more favors for themselves to compensate for their charitable expenditures, which in turn strengthens their influence over the government.

The outcome is a weakened public system, a more powerful role for the rich, and dependency of the poor on handouts. The effort to address poverty through philanthropic giving “is no replacement for an equitable tax system or robust publicly funded programs that fulfill the human rights of all people and work to eliminate extreme poverty” (p. 18).

An adequate standard of living and social protection against the slings of adversity are, according to the report, basic human rights. From this perspective, extreme poverty becomes a violation of human rights. If effective measures were adopted, the international community would have at its disposal the resources required to effectively lift impoverished peoples up to a decent and dignified standard of living. The reason poverty persists is because governments and international agencies have been reluctant to stand up against the powerful global financial and political forces that resist a wider and more just distribution of wealth and political power. As increasing percentages of global wealth are siphoned off by a small, super-wealthy elite, while billions live on the edge of survival, we are gradually reverting back to the social conditions depicted in the novels of Charles Dickens.

In the end, the report holds, it is up to governments to take back their capacity to fulfill the needs of their populations. Government is, in theory, our collective voice, and its institutions are the hands through which we express a sense of national and global solidarity. The stubborn persistence of poverty, the author writes, is not a decree of fate but “a political choice” that is also an affront to our sense of social justice. It is, he concludes, “only when the goal of realizing the human right to an adequate standard of living replaces the World Bank’s miserable subsistence line [that] the international community [will] be on track to eliminate extreme poverty” (p. 19).

Listen up, Congress: We need swift COVID-19 measures that put people first

 By Mary Babic

Cross-posted from Oxfam America’s “Politics of Poverty” series

The swift and devastating spread of the coronavirus in the US is dealing a staggering blow to our public health systems and our economy. It is also exposing how working families have been struggling for decades. As Americans grasp the enormous and long-term impact, they support policies that will deliver to those most affected and pave the road to an equitable recovery.

 The groundswell is crystal clear: A new Oxfam-Data for Progress national poll, conducted days ago, indicates overwhelming support (greater than 70 percent) for measures that directly help working people, including: paid sick leave for all workers, emergency funding for food supplies for those affected by the crisis, free testing for the virus, and moratoriums on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs.

Even “very conservative” voters indicate majority support for emergency cash payments, waiving copays for coronavirus treatment, and increasing federal funding for Medicaid. On the flip side, support drops noticeably for policies that prop up large businesses.

Support extends across all divides

Stunningly, support for these measures cuts across ideological, racial, and age divides. Simply put, voters recognize that this is a moment of great peril. As the clock ticks and the numbers rise, the pandemic is quickly revealing how many working families were already struggling to stay afloat, living paycheck to paycheck.

Americans want to prevent them from falling into bankruptcy, homelessness, and hunger. Women indicate stronger support for actions to protect working people. This may reflect the fact that women face disproportionate hardships during crises. They are the primary caregivers of children, the ill or disabled, and the elderly, and being confined in the home increases care work and stress. In addition, women are currently on the front lines as nurses, doctors, personal aides, and cleaners. Finally, we know from long experience that domestic violence spikes in times like these.

Among the overall insights: 86 percent support free access to coronavirus testing, vaccination, and care for every American. Eighty-six percent support strengthening unemployment assistance (especially for workers who depend on tips, gig workers, domestic workers and independent contractors). Eighty-five percent support an immediate moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut offs. Just 54 percent support low–interest government loans for oil and gas companies.

Americans are saying it loud and clear: We cannot sit back and watch as the pandemic devastates the most vulnerable and flattens our economy. It’s time for proactive and effective government action. While Congress recently passed legislation that mandated paid sick leave, it excludes 80 percent of workers. We must do better.

An effective policy agenda

If our response is left to the market, COVID-19’s impacts will cascade through our economy, further deepening poverty, gender, racial and wealth disparities.

It is not time for half-measures and incremental tweaks to an economic system already fragile and rigged in favor of the powerful. Instead, we need decisive, audacious actions to prevent long-lasting and grave economic consequences for everyone—especially for those pushed out of progress for decades.

As Congress feverishly negotiates its third economic rescue package, Oxfam has developed a full economic policy agenda. Here are some highlights:

Protect working people being hit the hardest 

Payroll tax cuts are a farce: ineffective, regressive and potentially bankrupting Social Security. Instead, Congress should deliver:

  • Cash payments to all individuals.
  • Recurring boosts to federal anti-poverty programs.
  • Paid sick and family leave to all.
  • Increased unemployment insurance benefits.
  • Fiscal relief to states, counties, and cities that will bear the brunt of this crisis.
  • Investments in emergency shelters for women facing domestic violence at home.

 No blank checks to big business, but lifeline support to smaller companies and workers

An economic triage rescue plan would prioritize support to small businesses on the edge, not the country’s most powerful multinational companies flush with cash.

  • This is not a time for bailouts, or corporate tax cuts, for big business.
  • This is not a time to re-write tax policy to the benefit of the wealthy (which endangers resources we will need in the long term).

Moreover, we agree that assistance to corporations should be conditioned on forbidding recipients from: reducing payrolls; violating existing collective bargaining agreements; demanding concessions from workers; outsourcing; increasing workloads; and, companies must agree to a $15 minimum wage once the crisis has passed.

Any sectoral assistance should be explicitly time-limited and subject to certain conditions, including and especially prohibiting share buybacks; freezing executive bonuses; requiring board approval for political lobbying expenditures; and country-by-country tax reporting.

No free lunch to certain sectors

Any assistance to corporations should not exacerbate existing inequalities, worsen public health outcomes, or impede the necessary global transition to a zero-carbon economy. In particular, sector-specific benefits for oil and gas producers, who’ve long-received subsidies and tax breaks, should not be considered at this time.

Affordable testing, treatment, and vaccination will be essential for economic recovery. Any assistance or incentives for the pharmaceutical sector must ensure that breakthroughs in treatment and vaccines become a global public good, accessible and affordable to everyone.

Mary Babic is the Senior Communications Officer for the US Regional Office at Oxfam America.

 

Helping Marginalized Working Women in Peru

By Patricia Brick

A BGR project in Peru, with Peruvian partner, Asociación Grupo de Trabajo Redes, is dedicated to providing marginalized women with access to vocational educational training, information about their labor rights, and opportunities to find dignified work.

Across the globe, women who work as domestic laborers fall into an unregulated “gray market” where jobs may require them to work long hours, for inadequate wages, often under exploitative conditions. Many are also vulnerable to physical abuse or sexual harassment or violence by their employers. In Peru, women who live in the pueblos jóvenes (shantytowns) surrounding Lima are often excluded from the mainstream job market by racism, classism, and limited access to education. Many of these women work in gray-market domestic jobs like housecleaning, child care, and elder care.

BGR partner Asociación Grupo de Trabajo Redes (AGTR) works to change the lives of these women through its project, “Conditional Capabilities: Providing Marginalized Women Access to Vocational Educational Training, Labor Rights, and Dignified Work.” Working from AGTR’s community center, La Casa de Panchita, or from La Van de Panchita, a mobile training unit, specialists educate women about their labor rights, provide training in vocational and interpersonal skills, offer counseling and job-search assistance, and host a variety of workshops and educational opportunities. AGTR also is home to a public-education initiative to raise awareness of the rights of domestic workers and hiring practices among employers and the general public, as well as resources and advocacy for child laborers.
Continue reading

Building Bridges for Poor Widows in the Punjab

By BGR Staff

Building Bridges India represents a bridge from the past to the future, from a patriarchal society to an egalitarian one in which women have role options, rights and responsibilities; a passage from despair to hope.

For over thirty years now, parts of Punjab have been stricken by a tragedy barely reported in the mainstream media: the suicides of small-scale farmers. A fatal combination of factors, including successive seasons of bad weather, the soaring cost of seeds and fertilizer, a falling water table, and the usurious rates imposed by moneylenders, have combined to make it impossible for them to sustain themselves on their ancestral lands. Seeing no way out, thousands have taken their own lives. Their deaths are tragedy enough. But for the widows and children they leave behind, life becomes a desperate struggle simply to survive.

Untrained, often illiterate and malnourished, burdened with their husbands’ debts yet without any way of earning an income, the women left behind–sometimes older, sometimes quite young–are responsible for housing and feeding themselves, their children and sometimes elderly relatives as well. Continue reading

BGR Exceeds Its EWEC Target

By Tom Spies

 

In 2016  BGR made a commitment to the Every Woman Every Child initiative (EWEC) that it would help to advance EWEC’s global strategy through our projects.  Here is some background on EWEC:

Every Woman Every Child is a multi-stakeholder movement to implement the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, launched by the UN Secretary-General in September 2015 in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Since its launch in 2010, Every Woman Every Child has mobilized hundreds of partners for maximum effect, with hundreds of organizations having made commitments to advance the Global Strategy. The partners include governments and policymakers, donor countries and philanthropic institutions, the United Nations and other multilateral organizations, civil society, the business community, health workers and their professional associations, and academic and research institutions.

BGR had committed to expending $1,600,000 over the 5 years from 2016 through 2020 towards programs to advance the EWEC goals, benefiting an estimated 16,000 individuals.  A few days ago we made an interim measure of our progress to date, and found that after 3 years we have already exceeded our 5-year commitment, expending $1,844,317 towards the EWEC goals, and benefiting an estimated 30,000 individuals.

This is an achievement truly worth celebrating. From this you should know that your donations are part of a worldwide movement helping to ensure the health and well-being of women, children, and adolescents around the world. Thank you all for your compassionate concern in supporting this endeavor!

Tom Spies is Executive Director of Buddhist Global Relief.

 
 
 
 
 

Training Single Women in Cameroon

By BGR Staff

BGR has been supporting the Cameroon organization CCREAD (Centre for Community Regeneration and Development) since 2017 on projects that provide livelihood training to widows and single mothers. In 2018, through the grant given by BGR, CCREAD was able to establish a second tailoring and design training unit, which enabled the organization to conduct more training sessions and enroll 68 new women and girls into the program.

As of February 2019, 68 widows and single mothers are undergoing full-time training, spending three days per week on intensive practical sessions in smaller groups split from the main training hall. Thirty-eight of the current 68 women in this cycle of training had been displaced as a result of political crisis and are now being empowered at the training center. Each of those 38 displaced women came to the training with children below the age of 10. CCREAD is helping to feed these children at the training center while their mothers undergo training.
Continue reading

Learning about Home Gardens, Nutrition, and Public Speaking in Vietnam

By Randy Rosenthal

With so many problems in the world, it sometimes feels like nothing we do can makes a difference. But Buddhist Global Relief (BGR) is showing that by improving the lives of individuals, we can in fact make a difference. A great example of this is BGR’s partnership with Helen Keller International (HKI) on the Enhanced Homestead Food Production (EHFP) project in Vietnam, which is now in its third year.

With BGR support, during 2018, HKI expanded their EHFP project to the provinces of Hoa Binh, Son La, and Lai Chau, which is one of the poorest areas of Vietnam. In July, the latter two provinces were heavily hit by tropical storm Son Tinh, which caused flash floods and landslides, but the program’s goals were successfully reached in all areas. These goals focused on alleviating hunger mainly through training mothers and pregnant women about nutrition and horticulture. Continue reading

A New Vocational Training Center for Marginalized Women in Cameroon

By Patricia Brick

A partnership between BGR and a community development center in Cameroon is helping to to lift women and girls out of poverty by providing them with practical vocational education and entrepreneurial training.

The signs say: “We want to thank the Centre for Community Regeneration and Development working together with Buddhist Global Relief (BGR).”

The Centre for Community Regeneration and Development (CCREAD-Cameroon) is a nonprofit working to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger in Cameroon through community-driven programs promoting education and vocational training, inclusion, and gender equity within a framework of environmental sustainability. Its projects focus on fostering social and economic empowerment among marginalized and disadvantaged people, with a focus on women, youths, and indigenous people.

In June 2017, in partnership with Buddhist Global Relief, CCREAD established a vocational training center for women and girls in Buea’s Mile 16 Bolifamba, a slum community of 17,850 people, 98 percent of whom are peasant farmers. More than 85 percent of the community lives below the U.N. poverty line. Residents here struggle to pay for food, medicine, housing, and school fees for their children. A recent influx of refugees and other migrants has further narrowed the resources and jobs available to impoverished people. Families headed by widows and single mothers are at particular risk, as these women traditionally encounter barriers in finding work. More than 60 percent of children in these families do not complete a single year of schooling. Continue reading

School Lunch Program for Marma Girls in CHT

by BGR Staff

 In 2016, BGR provided a grant to the Jamyang Foundation to support the free school lunch program at the Visakha Girls’ School in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. The grant covered the period from April 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017. This article, based on the final report from the Jamyang Foundation, describes the challenges faced by the school and the benefits of the project.

 

Visakha Girls’ School is located at Dhosri, a remote village in the district of Khagrachari in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh. The school was founded in 2005 and began offering free education for girls with the generous support of the Jamyang Foundation, which is under the direction of the American bhikshuni, Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. Initially, the Visakha Girls’ School offered classes to students in the 1st grade only. Later, more classes were gradually added. Now the school offers classes up to 5th grade.

The school still faces significant challenges. For decades the indigenous people throughout the Hill Tracts have been the subjects of genocide perpetrated by the Bangladesh military. The situation is critical and has required the UN and others to intervene several times, but for the most part the situation has received little or no international attention. Land grabs and aggression against the indigenous population occur continuously and any resistance to these injustices is met with extreme retaliation, including rape and murder by the Bangladesh army. The indigenous peoples of the CHT are victims of forced displacement and discrimination in all aspects of life in Bangladesh. The theft of their lands continues to have enormous social, economic, and political consequences for the people. Educating Marma girls is one of the only ways to protect them from exploitation and strengthen them to face the difficulties that lie ahead. Continue reading

Increasing Food Security for Families in South Darfur

By Tricia Brick

BGR’s partnership project with Oxfam Sudan, “Increasing Household Food Security in South Darfur,” provides needed seeds, agricultural tools, and field training to people in the South Darfur region of Sudan, who for over a decade have endured devastating violence and human rights violations as well as climate-related agricultural disruptions. In 2014, a rash of violence by government forces led to the displacement of more than 100,000 people across the Darfur region, as well as to the destruction of water sources, food stores, and other essential infrastructure.

A 2016 Buddhist Global Relief grant enabled Oxfam Sudan to provide groundnut and sorghum seeds and hand tools to 510 farming households in seven villages in Belail Locality, South Darfur. The project also trained 150 farmers in water-harvesting practices. Continue reading