Saturday, November 20, 2010

World poverty: cause and effects (2010)

From the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

How should poverty be measured if at all?
Part of the measure of statistics is that, however well-meant the goal, there are bound to be flaws and weaknesses. Any individual's subjective assessment of their own poverty will likely be quite different from that of an objective report. Over the years different studies have listed different requirements to be included into what constitutes poverty, but how many of these have consulted with the subjects of the report as to their own assessment of their situation? If poverty is to be eliminated, how it is manifested in different parts of the world, how it impacts differently on people of different regions and particularly its causes need to be thoroughly understood.

“Our aim should be to set the poverty line at a level where people can actually have a standard of living which we would consider morally acceptable,” says David Woodward in a July/August New Internationalist article. The article, based on a report which he co-authored with Saamah Abdallah, (See here.) explains the pitfalls and openings for misinterpretation of such economic-based poverty lines as the well known dollar-a-day as used in measuring the Millennium Development Goals. At least, he says, the dollar-a-day approach put poverty on the agenda 20 years ago – but the discrepancies in interpretation are so wide as to be almost meaningless and could make huge differences in the numbers of people being either included or, worse, excluded. Woodward proposes instead a 'Rights Based Poverty Line' – not based on income but as a starting point for agreed indicators such as economic and social rights, health, education and nutrition. This aims to be a more far-reaching attempt to identify those in need (and to ameliorate their conditions?) – a worthy goal no doubt within the capitalist system and one which will gain the support of many altruistic (dare I add misguided?) folk as they learn of it.

The focus of any of these studies in general is measuring poverty – how many, how much, how little, how widespread? – with little, if any, reference to why it is as it is or how it could be dealt with. If income levels are the problem who's going to agree to raising wages to the necessary level on the scale the studies show to be necessary? If it's social services which are inadequate where is the money to be found to raise them to the required level? No figures are given but it's pretty obvious that any solution in the current structure of the world's order would have to be in monetary terms.

Address the cause or ameliorate the effects?
The question that socialists would wish to see addressed more widely is why should we be expected to declare a position on what is acceptable as a baseline; why should we be discussing minimum adequate shelter, required basic living standards, access to sufficient food, clean water, health care, education and a minimum daily wage? In a world of from each according to ability to each according to need, a world of voluntary work and free access there will be no need to set base lines to keep people from falling below, needs will be self-determined and self-fulfilled with no requirement for money. Yes, we recognise the intolerable level of poverty in the world, the huge numbers with little or no access to clean drinking water, widespread hunger, the appalling lack of health care, deaths from treatable diseases and the millions caught up in wars and occupation not of their making. We recognise all this and more and we recognise the huge numbers of people worldwide who work hard in the belief that they can improve some of the conditions for some of the people. We also recognise that with all the hard work, time and money injected into so many projects over so many years that whilst there may be some temporary amelioration conditions for the majority are actually deteriorating. Our position is clear. We must address the cause not the effects. This is the big discussion that fails to hit the headlines.

The effects
Statistics may not always be totally reliable, or be biased one way or another, intentionally or not – and they can also put you to sleep – but it sometimes helps to shock us back to reality when we see them presented in an unusual or unfamiliar way. Sometimes it's the seeming impossibility of juxtaposed figures that can bring us to question the accuracy and then recognise all over again the sheer iniquity of the capitalist system. The numbers vary between reports but reveal that 55 percent of India's population, 645 million people, are living in poverty (a new Oxford University study); 51 percent of the world's poor, 844 million, live in South Asia and 28 percent, 458 million, in Africa (the Multidimensional Poverty Index – MPI ); that poverty in eight Indian states exceeds that of the 26 poorest African countries combined; that contrary to the Congress Party-led government's claims that economic growth has been inclusive figures show extraordinarily high levels of poverty among India's castes and tribal peoples; that using the $2 a day household income benchmark India is home to 828 million (75.6 percent of their population) below the poverty line compared with 551 million (72.2 percent) in sub-Saharan Africa. These millions are all individual people – often the same people in different studies – but they add up to an awful lot of noughts and between them they have pretty well nothing to their names.

The cause
Now for the wealthy. The ones on the right side of the tracks. The year 2010 has so far recognised 49 US$ billionaires in India who between them have amassed nearly 31 percent of GDP, four times the global average, which adds up to a staggering $340,900,000,000 (Forbes magazine).

In summing up How Poor is Poor Woodward recognises that a global poverty line fixed in monetary terms “is too unwieldy and can give wildly inaccurate results” and goes on to state that no improvements in our understanding of measurements of poverty are of any use ”unless effective action is taken not merely for poverty reduction but for a permanent eradication of the blight of poverty in a meaningful sense”. However poverty is measured it is simply another set of statistics revealing effects not causes and is of little benefit to any impoverished persons. To return to my earlier point 'permanent eradication' can only come from the worldwide decision to eradicate the cause, the blight of capitalism. We do have that choice and for the world's vast majority the day can't come too soon.
Janet Surman