World Bank and United Nations 'poverty policies' aim to give neoliberal globalisation a human face but, in fact, they allow for a continuation of the agendas that cause poverty in the first place – claims think-tank
According to World Bank data, there are almost 1.5 billion people living in extreme poverty across the globe. These citizens are living on less than $ 1.25 per day, and another billion people live on less than $ 2 per day. In total, this is almost half of the human race.
For nearly a quarter of a century, poverty has been the number one priority on the international community's political agenda. And the fight against poverty has become the official priority of development cooperation. Such focus and effort are reassuring because poverty ought not to exist in our extremely rich world. At the same time, one wonders why poverty was absent from the political agenda before 1990? And why we are still waiting to see any success for the strategies adopted in the fight against poverty?
The answers to these questions are clear when one starts to analyse the discourses and practices of the international organisations that imposed these priorities, such as the World Bank. First of all, it was clear from 1990 and the World Bank's first major poverty report that nothing was going to change in the 'Washington consensus' policies. In other words, the lean state and the free trade ideology, the privatisations and deregulations were going to continue. And the consequence of this is more poverty. It means that poverty reduction policies are 'end-of-the-pipe' solutions that do not stop the impoverishment processes.
Second, the World Bank also made clear that social protection policies - beyond poverty reduction - were not desirable for developing countries. According to the bank, they are for the 'vested interests' of workers and not for the 'common interest' of the poor. However, social protection is the best tool we have for preventing poverty and tackling inequality.
Third, in the World Bank's neoliberal philosophy, poverty is a problem of individuals which lack opportunities. It is not a societal problem linked to the distribution of wealth and resources but only a lack of market access, health care and skills for this market. As for the United Nations and its programme of Millennium Development Goals, they lack a clear reference to the necessary economic and social development as well as to economic and social rights. Clearly, in countries with poverty rates beyond 50 per cent, it is not a fight against poverty one needs but development.
Finally, one has to refer to the work of major historians and sociologists such as Geremek, Sassier and Simmel. They taught us that poor people never are the first objective of poverty reduction policies. Their first aim is indeed one of legitimacy of political power and of hiding these real objectives. 'Poverty policies' aim to give neoliberal globalisation a human face. In fact, they have allowed for a continuation of the agendas that cause poverty in the first place.
This is the hard reality. Poverty is not only a very painful reality of too many poor people who are denied a life in dignity, it is also an ideology used by those in power in order to hide their objectives and to dismantle social protection mechanism which can prevent poverty. The solution then has to be sought in human rights - the indivisible civil, political, social and economic rights - as well as the right to development. These are old ideas but remain as valid as ever. The important and obvious point with poverty is that the best way to give people an opportunity to live in dignity is to respect their individual and collective rights - and respect their sovereignty. Francine Mestrum is an indepedent researcher and author of The fight against poverty, and human rights report for the Centre Europe-Tiers Monde think-tank, in Switzerland