October 17, 2012

A wealthier nation doesn’t necessarily mean lower poverty rates.

The world has marked Oct. 17 as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty every year since 1993,when the United Nations General Assembly designated a day to promote awareness that poverty and destitution in all countries must be wiped out. This has become a stated development priority for most donor countries as well as many national governments and local groups working on the ground in both developed and developing countries.

Despite the multiple commitments and efforts to do away with extreme poverty, there are as many poor people today then there were in the early 1990s, with poverty in some nations, including Canada, being stubbornly persistent. Even with the progress made on the Millennium Development Goals, and in particular the goal that tackles poverty and hunger, the fact remains that there are only four to five per cent fewer poor people in absolute terms in the world today. And, notably, the vast majority of those living below the poverty line today (72 per cent) live in countries now considered “middle income,” whereas these same states were low-income countries in the early 1990s. At that time, 93 per cent of those below the poverty line lived in low-income countries. In other words, the increasing wealth of a nation does not necessarily correspond to decreasing poverty rates. High-income countries like Canada are a good example of this phenomenon. Canada is one of the richest countries in the world. Yet there are between three million and 4.4 million people living in poverty, representing 10 to 13 per cent of the population. This level of poverty is unacceptable in an affluent country well capable of a poverty rate close to, if not right at, zero.

Little attention paid to underlying causes
How do we explain that middle-income countries (such as Pakistan, India, China, Nigeria, and Indonesia) that have increasing resources to fight poverty, and even developed countries like Canada, allow for such sizeable numbers of their citizens to remain unable to meet their basic needs? Part of the answer is in the limited attention that has been given at the global and national levels to the underlying causes of poverty—including inequality, discrimination, and disempowerment. To date, mobilization to eradicate poverty has focused on addressing the symptoms of poverty instead of on the policy changes needed to do away with the causes of poverty. Canada has a historic future opportunity to provide leadership at the international level on this critical global issue. In 2013, the UN has convened a major event to assess progress on the Millennium Development Goals (before they expire in 2015) and prepare the ground for the post-2015 development framework. Global leadership is urgently needed to ensure that in the next round of goals, the structural causes of poverty are boldly addressed.

Canada can provide that international leadership, building, for example, on its role in maternal child health. But to do so with credibility, Canada must first show leadership and robust action at home. The federal government must urgently address poverty, homelessness, and hunger in Canada starting with the adoption of national intergovernmental strategies based on national and international human rights principles including equality and non-discrimination. This should include rights-based participation, such as complaints mechanisms and independent monitoring and review with enforceable targets and timelines. Canada must also show leadership by increasing and enhancing its aid commitments directed exclusively at ending poverty in the world.

The theme for this year’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty,“Working together out of poverty,”highlights the need for all levels of government to work in concert to end poverty in Canada, as well as for a truly global anti-poverty alliance, one in which both developed and developing countries participate actively in addressing poverty issues everywhere. We are encouraged that today parliamentarians will be attending an evening panel discussion called “Ending Poverty Together: Real Stories, Real Solutions,” organized by the All-Party Anti-Poverty Caucus. We are also encouraged that today a group of civil society organizations, working on poverty issues internationally, are launching the “Reverse the Cuts” campaign, aimed at garnering popular support for the needed boost in the quantity and quality of Canadian aid. We are moving in the right direction, and with federal leadership we could make significant progress.

Julia Sanchez is the president-CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, Canada’s coalition to end global poverty. Leilani Farha is the executive director of Canada Without Poverty and the CWP Advocacy Network, organizations dedicated to the elimination of poverty in Canada.

This Op Ed was published in Embassy Newspaper on October 17, 2012.

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