Despite the wondrous technological developments and global wealth generated since the start of the 19th century, billions of people continue to live in the direst conditions of poverty. While this is clear from even the most casual observation of anyone who has travelled, lived or worked in the South (the Southern Hemisphere), the definition of poverty and how it should be measured remains a highly contested area. One of the most prevalent and widely quoted of these poverty measures is the World Bank Poverty Line, which calculates the amount of people who live under certain income levels, such as under US$1.25 a day.
However, for Charo Quesada the plight of poverty is not susceptible to being captured by imaginary poverty lines. Instead, he argues that poverty should be interpreted as the inability of any particular individual to afford “certain basic necessities, taking into account the circumstances and social requirements of the environment.”
Similarly, Godfried Engsberen reminds us “(F)or the poor, poverty is not a matter of definition. It is the harsh reality of daily life”. This observation is perhaps best illustrated through the words of a grandmother in Zimbabwe who, when questioned as to what she considered poverty, replied:
You want to know how I define Poverty? How can you ask the question when you yourself see that I live in poverty? The definition of poverty is right in front of you. Look at me. I stay alone. I don’t have enough food. I have no decent clothing or accommodation. I have no clean water to drink. Look at my swollen leg. I can’t get to the clinic which is too far for me to walk. So what kind of a definition of poverty do you expect me to give you which is better than what you are seeing with your naked eyes?
One thing is certain no matter how one calculates poverty, a significant proportion of the world’s population live in highly precarious circumstances lacking access to the basic needs required to enjoy a secure and decent human life.
Poverty does not just translate into harsh living conditions or an inferior quality of life. The reality is far worse. Millions of adults and children die each year as a direct result of poverty. According to UNICEF, 25,000 children every day – or one every three and a half seconds – die from poverty-related causes. Between 2000 and 2007 alone 70,000,000 children died from poverty, a figure well in access of the total population of the UK and Ireland. For every 1,000 children born in the South over 100 die before reaching five compared with 10 per 1,000 in the richer North (the Northern Hemisphere).
Despite international development efforts dating back well into the previous millennium, nearly one in two children globally still live in poverty, with the attendant risk of seriously shortened life spans, increased morbidity and a significantly reduced quality of life.
The British moral philosopher Ted Honderich has effectively captured the dichotomy in life chances between people in the North and many of those born in the South, when he writes:
The average healthy lifetime of our group, the one with the United States in it, is about seventy-two years. The average healthy lifetime of the other group, with Malawi in it, is about thirty years. At each stage of life, so many fewer in that group were healthy, so many more of them sick or worse… In terms of healthy life – decent life – many have less than half-lives at best. Some of these lives that bring the average years down to thirty must be lives that we for our part would be inclined to take as not worth living.
Although claims have been advanced that the number of people living in poverty experienced a sizable reduction during the first half of this decade this decrease has not been equitably distributed. For instance, while estimates of global poverty statistics, based on World Bank data, indicated a fall in the total number of people existing below the international poverty line of US$1.25 per day from 1.8 billion to 1.4 billion between 1990 and 2005, it should be noted that China alone accounted for some 465 million of this drop. This would imply therefore that poverty elsewhere actually increased rather than decreased during this period.
Of course, poverty is a global phenomenon and not merely a distant scourge that only afflicts faraway lands with exotic names. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO) 14.4% of the Irish population are at risk of poverty with 4.4% trapped in a state of consistent poverty. However, this poverty is not distributed equally amongst the various social groups that make up our country. For lone parents, unemployed parents, ill or disabled people and children under 17 the chance of being at a risk of poverty or in consistent poverty is well above this national average. Given the recent punitive and highly inequitable budget, the strain on these social groups is only likely to intensify.
At the same time, while the failure of a relatively wealthy country such as Ireland to ensure that no family or child can only be regarded as a national scandal and disgrace, it is undeniable that the extremes of life-threatening poverty are concentrated in the South.
Writing with respect to the poverty in the context of the UN’s work, Ngozi F. Stewart asserts that “Poverty is one of the gravest human rights challenges to the UN.” While this is unquestionably true, it is not just a challenge for the UN. It is an affront to everyone who objects to a world where peoples’ lives amount to little more than a struggle for survival, where parents are forced to watch their beloved children fading away before their eyes and where for many the most they can realistically hope for is a relatively short life expectancy filled with days of want.
Furthermore, many would contend that the North seems more intent on paying lip service to tackling the evil of poverty than actually honouring its commitments in terms of assistance and provision of the required resources to do so. That fact that the funds needed to ensure every child in the world could have gone to school by the turn of the millennium would have amounted to only 1% of total military expenditure would seem to greatly support this contention.
A further obstacle faced by the South lies in the unfair trading conditions under which they operate. While some critics argue this is because the South is still insufficiently integrated into the global marketplace, others would argue that the reverse is the case.
The economist Ha-Joon Chang has written extensively as to how states in the South are prevented from applying the same interventionist economic policies that the wealthier nations in the North used during their rise. The (neo)liberal ‘free trade’ dogma and influence of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and International Financial Institutions (IFI) such as the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) make it virtually impossible for any ‘developing’ nation to pursue their own independent social and economic policies, such as nurturing and developing indigenous industries. As a result countries in the South are often left highly dependent on foreign enterprises and external organisations, leaving their governments and administrations in a very weak position to address the high levels of poverty which plague their citizens.
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