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[afro-nets] Food for a non-money-metric thought

  • From: "Claudio Schuftan" <cschuftan@phmovement.org>
  • Date: Thu, 20 Nov 2008 16:28:55 +0000

Human Rights Reader 200



Hitherto, the definition and measurement of poverty is the province of economists and this has been instrumental in relegating poverty from a primary human rights concern to considerations such as economic stability and growth. (D. Woodward)

1. In the World Bank's 'money-metric' approach to assessing poverty, the extent of global income poverty is quite grossly underestimated. As if this were not bad enough, the WB infers, without justification, that global income poverty has steeply declined. (As a matter of fact, in each country, $1/day does not mean an income of $1/day as such; in money-metrics it means an income that will buy the same that $1/day will buy in the USA. This is why it is argued that a $2/person/day poverty line is a more appropriate indicator of extreme poverty to be used for global purposes).

2. With such a money-metric distortion, it is no surprise that there is a fundamental inconsistency between international standards in terms of (WB-calculated) income poverty and social and economic rights. So, money-metrics is of no help to those of us who have taken up the challenge of going from a-moral-outrage-about-the-consequences-of-too-many-people-living-on-extreme-low-incomes to on-the-ground-political-action. Consequently, a poverty line defined as attainable levels of health and nutrition as human rights (HR), and as a threshold for all in society to surpass is clearly much more important for us. In sum, the WB approach reflects the outright abandonment of the right to health and nutrition in the developing world as inalienable rights of all people.

3. Already from a moral perspective the concept of a single global poverty line defined in money terms is problematic: Poverty is not merely a factor of income; the standard of living which grossly insufficient income affords is below a level which is considered to be morally acceptable. From a moral perspective, the primary consideration should be to set the poverty line in a way that reflects our reasons for setting it at all, i.e., overcoming poverty! [As of now, the poverty line is only an instrument to compare, not an instrument to *do* anything about poverty: and this is outright cynical].

4. Global-poverty-counts (i.e., counting the number of people below a given poverty line worldwide) have neither a normative value nor an empirical relevance for analyzing and focusing on the underlying determinants of poverty. It may be preferable to stick to national poverty lines instead where such an analysis can be more realistic.

5. The dangerous trap we have fallen into in the contemporary world, is that what is not measured, soon ceases to matter to policy makers --and to allow any less attention than is now devoted to the HR issue underpinning global poverty is a moral and political abdication of the worst order.

6. Many HR are closely linked to indicators which have a well-established relationship with income levels (mortality rates, life expectancy, disease prevalence, nutrition indicators, primary school enrolment particularly of girls) Every human being has the human right to an income commensurate with the attainment of those HR-linked indicators!

7. Where to set the level of a better, fairer poverty line entails a large element of subjective judgment --granted. However, this is an unavoidable consequence of making our moral and political judgments explicit. (What Child Survival or Health For All or Education for All actually mean, for example, needs to be defined in HR terms, if not they will remain vague aspirations rather than human rights in a meaningful sense).

8. A HR-based poverty line will thus be a valuable indicator of the relationship between income and particular aspects of economic and social rights. Consider, for instance, the following: Two countries may have the same level of poverty, but one have a lower poverty line than the other; this will indicate that the country with the lower poverty line performs relatively well in terms of fulfilling particular human rights of its population for that given level of living standards.

9. Here, then, is a call for a poverty line to be set according to living standards --which is why we are interested in poverty in the first place: to improve those standards!

10. Therefore, it is here contended that defining poverty explicitly in terms of non-income dimensions of poverty broadens the definition of poverty beyond income alone. It ensures that changes in poverty reflect changes in living standards rather than changes in income (which may or may not be associated with improvements in living standards). Strengthening the focus on living standards and on economic and social rights thus better defines the factors associated with what it means to be poor and better points to the alternatives of what needs to be done.

11. Moreover, by shifting the locus of the definition and measurement of poverty to other disciplines such as health, nutrition and education, the human rights-based poverty line approach has the potential to empower these disciplines to more effectively participate in all debates about poverty thus strengthening the moral and political discourse on poverty eradication.

12. Bottom line: By setting a money-metric poverty line --and, at that, one that is way too low-- one overstates progress in reducing poverty giving the entire world a false sense of security…and that is what the WB has been doing. The rights-based framework, on the other hand, combines the use of outcome indicators to provide a moral and political basis for the definition of poverty. With country-specific, human-rights-based poverty lines one better arrives at the latter according to what it means to be poor in each country and why citizens there should be concerned about poverty: an indispensable point of departure to do something meaningful about it.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

[All Readers can be found in www.humaninfo.org/aviva under No.69<http://www.humaninfo.org/aviva%20%20under%20No.69>]


Adapted from Woodward, D., How poor is poor? Towards a rights-based poverty line, mimeo, third draft March 2008. (Full paper available from the author at David.Woodward@neweconomics.org)