Taking up the challenge

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International Day for the Eradication of Poverty: 'Working Together out of Poverty'.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first ever International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, to give it its full, official name. One of the early markers of a new era of anti-poverty advocacy and activism, the first World Anti-Poverty Day was organized in 1987 by a group of activists in Paris, France. It followed closely on the heels of LiveAid a multi-venue concert organized by Bob Geldof in 1985 that eventually raised £40 million for fighting poverty in Africa -- and was adopted by UN in December 1992 through a resolution in the General Assembly that invited all States to "devote the day to presenting and promoting, as appropriate in the national context, concrete activities with regard to the eradication of poverty and destitution."

Somewhat ironically, the need to button down a specific meaning to what the day stood for is probably one of the things that have led to a very limited understanding of what is meant by poverty in the public consciousness. But development practitioners at the frontline have always recognised its heterogeneous nature, its myriad manifestations and multi-faceted dimensions. And within them, there worked the growing conviction that although throughout the world, there was an unprecedented number of anti-poverty programmes being put into motion by governments and non-government organisations alike (and indeed lifting millions out of poverty), there remained a segment right at the bottom of the economic ladder that these programmes consistently failed to reach.

They are those living in the throes of extreme poverty, and over time, a number of different paradigms emerged to identify them in each nation's own context. In Bangladesh, they are said to be those living below the lower poverty line, that is, those whose total expenditure amounts to the cost of a basket of goods that just about allows for the consumption of 1,805Kcal per person per day.

By this measure, according to the government's latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES), held in 2010, of the total 31.5% of the population said to be living in poverty, some 19.5%, equivalent to nearly 25 million people, are living in extreme poverty.

Calorie intake per day works well as a working definition, but it falls short in terms of fulfilling one of the implicit intentions behind the commemoration of October 17 as World Anti-Poverty Day: promoting greater understanding and dialogue between poor people and their communities, and society at large.

A measure of calorie intake per day is unlikely to be a parameter that society at large can identify with, since most of us are blissfully unaware of our own daily consumption of calories as part of our food intake.

A report developed by BRAC in collaboration with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada stated that the ultra-poor spend most of their "meager, unreliable" earnings on food, and yet "fail to fulfill the minimum calorie intake needed to stave off malnutrition." As a consequence, their health suffers and this causes a further drain on their resources. They are said to be invisible even in their own communities, often living on other people's land, and having no-one to speak up for them or assist them in ensuring their rights.

The report also voiced a concern that troubles most development practitioners: previous mainstream development programmes such as microfinance and government safety nets were not reaching "down-market" enough, leaving the ultra-poor in a chronic state of struggle. This meant that although the overall rate of poverty was declining, extreme poverty was declining at a slower rate, an observation that is borne out even by the latest HIES.

It necessitated the advent of a new generation of programmes built around providing an element of social protection to the ultra-poor, and involving some form of asset transfer. Today, besides BRAC's pioneering CFPR:TUP programme, they include the Chars Livelihoods Programme run by DfID, and the government's own Vulnerable Group Development programme and the Programmed Initiatives for Monga Eradication, or PRIME, that seeks to address the seasonal poverty that besets northern Bangladesh every year with the onset of monga.

The programme transfers productive assets such as livestock to the poorest households in a programme area for a period of two years, to go with intensive training and support in managing those assets, and a daily stipend until the assets start generating income. Other support provided includes subsidised health and legal services.

The essence of the model lies in the asset-transfer being time-bound, within which programme clients are expected to "graduate" out of their initial condition to one where they may become eligible for other programmes such as microfinance.

Based on surveys, research indicates that 98% of the poorest households satisfied at least six out of 10 "graduation" indicators in 2008. Independent research by a group of economists based in London and Rome, led by Robin Burgess of the LSE, also demonstrated a surge in annual earnings and per capita expenditure of the households, relative to pre-programme levels.

We find it especially prudent to draw attention to such programmes, in light of the theme for this year's Anti-Poverty Day centering extreme poverty. While that evokes the "violence" of extreme poverty to arouse a greater sense of urgency in efforts to eradicate it, we feel it is also important to recognise that it isn't a totally hopeless condition, and that with a bit of a leg-up from the rest of us who are considerably better-off, even those who are extremely poor today can climb out of their malaise, and stand on their own two feet in the not-so-distant future.

 

The article was originally published here: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=254056