Category Archives: Global poverty

The Persistence of Poverty is a Political Choice

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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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).

BGR Projects Meeting Awards $600,000 in Grants

By Tricia Brick

Buddhist Global Relief’s annual projects meeting, typically held over the last weekend in April, usually brings all of BGR’s board members and staff together for an in-person gathering at Chuang Yen Monastery, in Carmel, New York. Members fly in from as far away as Washington State, California, and Florida, to put their minds and hearts together in the joyful task of approving the projects to sponsor over the next fiscal year. This year, however, because of the restrictions on travel imposed by the national lockdown, BGR held its projects meeting via Zoom. The meeting was divided into three sessions over the weekend of April 24–26. By the time the meeting was over, the BGR board had approved funding for 41 projects, offering more than $600,000 in grants to sponsor projects with our partners around the world.

These projects cover the four areas of our mission. They provide direct food aid to people afflicted by hunger and malnutrition; promote ecologically sustainable agriculture; support the education of children, with an emphasis on education for girls; and give women the opportunity to start right livelihood projects to support their families. The approved funding also included a $5,000 donation to support the construction of a new distribution center for the Sahuarita Food Bank in southeastern Arizona.

A new BGR partner this year is Shraddha Charity Organization, whose project in Sri Lanka will provide food, nutritional supplements, and hygienic supplies to women in need through their pregnancies and postpartum period.

New projects with existing partners include our first projects in Tanzania and Senegal. In Tanzania, BGR partner Action Against Hunger has created a nutrition program for the Dodoma region to address child malnutrition through a combined women’s livelihood and climate-resilient agriculture project. The project will provide agricultural training for smallholder women farmers to increase production of nutrient rich crops such as peppers, kale, cabbage, carrots, spinach, pumpkin, okra, eggplant, and papaya. The project also provides nutrition education for families and health screenings for at-risk children.

In Senegal, a project with Helen Keller International will construct boreholes and wells to supply clean water for drinking and agricultural irrigation. The project also provides seeds and agricultural inputs to improve the nutrition of approximately 900 people in need.

Other projects, renewals or extensions of existing projects, will be implemented in Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, India, Kenya, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Peru, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand (for Burmese refugees), Uganda, and Vietnam, as well as U.S. projects in Detroit and Easton, Pennsylvania.

At this year’s meeting, BGR was delighted to welcome Raimund Hopf and Karl Wirtz of Mitgefühl in Aktion (MIA), a new Buddhist aid organization based in Germany. MIA, whose German name means “compassion in action,” was established as a “sister” to BGR, with the aim of working alongside us in funding life-saving projects around the world. This year, its first year of operation, MIA will be co-funding three projects with BGR in the current grant cycle.

Learn more about MIA here: https://www.mia.eu.com/ .

BGR would like to express our deepest gratitude to all our supporters wherever they might be. It is through your generosity that these projects will relieve the suffering of thousands of people in need in the U.S. and around the world.

Hot Meals and Mentoring for Poor Kids in Mongolia

By BGR Staff

One-third of Mongolia’s population experiences extreme poverty and is unable to afford basic food and shelter. The Tibetan monk, Ven. Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, was determined to do something about this.

Born in Eastern Tibet in 1939 to nomadic parents, Ven. Rinpoche received full monastic ordination in 1961 under His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He completed his formal studies in India and was awarded the highest degree of Geshe Lharampa, equivalent to a Doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy. In 1995, the Dalai Lama asked Rinpoche to go to Mongolia to teach Buddhism to the Mongolian people. After his arrival in Mongolia, he set about finding ways to overcome the high levels of poverty he encountered there. He established Asral NGO in 2001 with the objective of keeping families together and preventing children from going onto the streets. Asral is the Mongolian word for “care.”
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Climate Change and World Hunger

By David Braughton

Climate Change and the World’s Poor

For the 821 million people across the globe who face chronic hunger, climate change is no theory, but an ever-present reality.  Fully 80% of the world’s chronically hungry and malnourished people live in rural areas, surviving only on the food they grow from their rain-dependent farms.  Variability in the amount of rainfall, when the rain falls, days between rainfall, or daily temperatures – all the result of climate change – can quickly transform what is at its best a marginal existence into almost certain starvation.
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Cooking Porridge and Training Health Workers in Côte d’ Ivoire

By Randy Rosenthal

One of the leading factors in infant mortality in Côte d’ Ivoire, where about 40% of the population lives in poverty, is malnutrition. This is especially the case in Korhogo District, in the northern region of Poro, where malnutrition is the most prevalent. That’s why Buddhist Global Relief chose to support Helen Keller International’s (HKI) effort to greatly reduce instances of malnutrition among women of child-bearing age in Korhogo, and especially among children during their first 1,000 days of life.

Compared to their projects in other countries, the way HKI approached their effort in Côte d’Ivoire is quite unique. And this is because they focused their efforts on training local community health workers, who could then continue to share knowledge locally, rather than solely holding information sessions. Continue reading

Helping Indian Dalit Girls Rise Up and Shine: The Mission of the Bodhicitta Foundation

By Patricia Brick

The Bodhicitta Foundation provides schooling and job training, legal assistance, social justice and women’s rights education, and other services to impoverished Dalit women and girls in Nagpur, India. Founded by the Australian Buddhist nun Ayya Yeshe, the foundation operates a girls’ hostel and a women’s job training and community center in slum areas of Nagpur. A three-year Buddhist Global Relief grant supports both of these projects.

The Dalits in India–the people formerly known as “outcasts” or “untouchables”–have historically been relegated to jobs considered “below” even the members of society’s lowest caste.; Their work traditionally involved such tasks as cleaning or processing human waste or animal carcasses. Women and girls in this group face additional gender-specific burdens including domestic violence and child marriage. An estimated 30 percent of Indian women experience physical or sexual domestic violence in their lifetimes, according to the U.N.’s Global Database on Violence Against Women. More than a quarter of Indian girls are married by age 18, and 7 percent are married by age 15.

The Bodhicitta Foundation seeks to break the cycle of poverty by giving women and girls the tools they need to financially support themselves and their families. An estimated 2,000 people benefit from the foundation’s initiatives in Nagpur each year. Continue reading

Improving Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health in Kenya

By Randy Rosenthal

BGR has partnered with Helen Keller International to strengthen the health system and reduce maternal and child mortality in densely-populated Kakamega County, in western Kenya.

Malnutrition is a major problem in Kenya, where nearly half of the population lives in poverty. That’s why Buddhist Global Relief has partnered with Helen Keller International on a three-year project to improve access, delivery, and utilization of essential nutrition-related services in Kenya. HKI is working with the Kenyan Ministry of Health and Action Against Hunger (AAH) to address Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) and to combat poor nutrition outcomes in five Kenyan counties. BGR is supporting HKI’s ambitious effort to strengthen the health system and reduce maternal and child mortality in densely-populated Kakamega County, in western Kenya. The grant from BGR sustains HKI’s Kakamega program in its entirety. Continue reading

Children: The Face of Hunger

By David Braughton

Introduction

Look into the eyes of someone who is hungry and one out of five times it will be a child under age five staring back at you. The child will probably bear little resemblance to the graphic images found on the internet of a little wizened skull with sunken eyes sitting atop an emaciated body that more resembles a skeleton than a small living being grasping for life. What you will see is an otherwise ordinary kid who appears stunted (too short for its age) and wasted (underweight for its age). Or, you may see a child who is both too short and, at the same time, obese, another seemingly paradoxical symptom of chronic malnutrition.

Stunting and wasting represent two key markers of child malnutrition.  In 2017, there were 151 million children who were abnormally short for their age.  There were also 51 million kids who were seriously underweight for their age and 38 million who were overweight.  What is particularly alarming is the growing number of children who are overweight and stunted, although no reliable statistics are available to determine the true scope of the problem (UNICEF, WHO, World Bank). Continue reading

Tackling Maternal and Childhood Malnutrition in Cote d’Ivoire

By BGR Staff

The following article is based on the final report for the first year of a three-year project being implemented by Helen Keller International (HKI), a long-time BGR partner. The project, which is being funded in its entirety by BGR, aims to improve nutrition for pregnant women, infants, and children in the Korhogo District of Cote d’Ivoire. Cote d’Ivoire is among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 172nd out of 188 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index. Estimated child mortality under five years is 195 per 1,000 live births and life expectancy is just 54 years. Malnutrition, including vitamin and micro-nutrient deficiencies, is a major contributing factor to the high rate of infant mortality. Chronic malnutrition affects about 33% of children under five. Together, HKI and BGR are doing something to address this problem.

With the support of Buddhist Global Relief, Helen Keller International has launched this project to tackle malnutrition in the Korhogo Health District, located in the Poro Region in the northern part of the country, where child malnutrition is most pronounced. The overall goal of the program is to reduce the incidence of malnutrition among women of childbearing age, expectant and breast-feeding mothers, and children during their first 1,000 days of life. This enables newborns to reach a healthy start in life, decreasing the incidence of stunting and improving children’s cognitive development. Continue reading