11 February 2005

Abject Poor Marginalized, ‘Voiceless’, Say Participants in Social Development Round Table on Poverty Eradication

NEW YORK, 10 February (UN Headquarters) -- Citing inconsistent results after a decade’s worth of unfocused global poverty reduction policies, top social development ministers, academics and civic actors joined senior United Nations officials today for a frank discussion about their national successes -– and disappointments –- and emphasized the critical need to put people back at the centre of development strategies.

Creating a space for the voices of the poor to be heard emerged as a key theme during a round table held today at United Nations Headquarters as part of the Commission on Social Development’s 10-year review of the commitments made at the Copenhagen World Summit. At that 1995 conference, world leaders had pledged to confront the profound social problems of the world by addressing three core issues common to all countries: poverty, promotion of full employment and promotion of social integration, particularly disadvantaged groups.

In 2000, the General Assembly’s twenty-third special session (known as Copenhagen+5), reaffirmed the centrality of more equitable, socially just and people-centred societies, and agreed on a number of relevant strategies and, for the first time, set a global target for poverty reduction -– halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015. The special session also encouraged governments to develop and implement pro-poor sustainable growth policies that enhanced the potential and ability of people living in poverty to improve their lives. The 2015 target date was subsequently adopted by the United Nations Millennium Summit and is now a key development priority for the global community.

“Chronic poverty isn’t reported on the nightly news, but it is the story –- perhaps the most pressing story -- of our time”, said Professor Kaushik Basu of Cornell University, moderator of the panel. Because of the very circumstances in which they lived, the abject poor were not only marginalized but “voiceless”, virtually incapable of drawing consistent worldwide attention to their dire situation, and that was one of the real tragedies of globalization, he said.

Noting that the 10 richest people in the world, with a combined net worth of some $217 billion, had a greater income that the entire population of the United Republic of Tanzania, Professor Basu said that, while there was no one to blame for that -– “It’s just the way the world is today” –- it was, nevertheless, a stark reminder of the urgent need to find real, workable solutions to reduce inequalities and remove the constraints that engendered them. He added that, while poverty was decreasing in some regions, inequality -- within and between countries -- was on the rise.

In that light, Copenhagen’s call for people-centred development strategies was also a simultaneous plea for global actors to examine poverty’s root causes, he said. For example, 92 per cent of the world’s poor lived and worked in rural farming communities, but merely boosting agricultural subsidies would not be enough to improve their overall livelihoods. Crop growing touched on industrial, manufacturing and distribution sectors, so structural adjustments would be needed across the broader spectrum in order to spur and maintain socio-economic growth and development.

As the discussion got under way, Anwarul K. Chowdhury, the United Nations top envoy for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, called for creative, unconventional thinking to help identify concrete poverty eradication initiatives. He agreed that poverty-stricken people were voiceless, and that there must be a better way to ensure that they had access to a more equitable share of the world’s wealth. Empowering the poor at the community level was perhaps the key, he said, urging the panel to focus on the world’s poorest people, particularly in Africa.

Several ministers from Africa called for more cooperation from the developed and developing world so that the issue of poverty could be addressed fairly and realistically. They shared their national experiences to integrate structural reforms and spur growth, but noted that the challenges facing the continent were daunting. Botswana’s Assistant Minister of Local Government, Ambrose Masalika, was among those who citied the struggle to maintain social safety nets, battle “brain drain” and other manpower shortages –- due mainly to early deaths from HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases -– and to overcome the disadvantages of small markets.

A host of speakers from Latin America and the Caribbean drew attention to the effects of rural poverty, with Paraguay’s Director of the National Plan on the Strategy for the Fight against Poverty, Inequality and Exclusion, Luis Galeano, stressing the wider effects of unequal distribution of land holdings among the poor. While many in the developed world believed that the era of agrarian reform was past, land rights were being threatened, so the push to eradicate poverty -- in his region and around the world –- must include efforts to empower small farmers and the landless poor, particularly in indigenous communities. Peru’s Minister of Women and Social Development, Ana Maria Romero Lozada, who chaired the round table, added that, since so many countries and regions shared similar experiences, the whole of society must share the responsibility for eradicating poverty.

China’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Qiao Zong Huai, said that, as his country’s economy continued to grow, the Government was implementing poverty alleviation strategies at the community-level, as well as improving cooperation with other countries in and around the region. Cambodia’s representative, Chem Widhya, said, while poverty alleviation was the primary responsibility of national governments, in the era of globalization, coordinated and joint efforts at the national level were extremely important.

The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for International and Legal Affairs of Iran, Gholamali Khoshro, said there was a need to integrate social development policies into macro-development strategies, and was among the many speakers who also emphasized the need to address the feminization of poverty. The representative of Bangladesh, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, stressed the key role of the United Nations as an identifier and collator of best practices so that they could be translated and transmitted throughout the wider international community.

Spain’s Vice-Minister and Secretary of State for Social Affairs, Families and Disabilities, Ampara Valcarce Garcia, stressed that poverty was not exclusive to developing countries and that there were pockets of poverty everywhere. For Spain, as well as other developed countries, the aim was to identify and implement effective measures to ensure broader social protection. Spain had focused on job creation, better pension coverage, and increased housing subsidies -- not trusting economic development as the only solution for poverty alleviation. She added that promoting gender equality and improving education were also important factors.

Representatives from civil society urged the ministers and government representatives to implement policies that enriched rather than impoverished people and communities. Identifying three generic root causes of poverty –- lack of assets, insecurity and vulnerability -- a research fellow from the United Kingdom-based Overseas Development Institute said public policies must give priority to ensuring equity and strategic growth. The Director of HelpAge International echoed the views of many speakers today when he stressed that communities should be allowed to become architects of their futures, not just recipients of support.

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