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How to get back on track to end extreme poverty

Expert Comment

Written by Amanda Lenhardt

Image credit:World Bank / Henitsoa Rafalia Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This time two years ago, the International Day for the Eradication of Extreme Poverty (17 October) was approached with cautious optimism. Major strides had been made in the preceding two decades with the number of people living in extreme poverty reduced by around 1.5 billion between 1990-2018. With all the caveats that come with these figures - income poverty is only one of many important dimensions of wellbeing and questions around the level at which the international poverty line is set among them – there was no doubt that most parts of the world were headed in the right general direction towards lowering the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day.

The Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020 and the economic and social disruptions that came with it have jeopardised the prospects of eradicating extreme poverty in the foreseeable future. Not only has the pandemic pushed an estimated 97 million people into poverty in 2020, but those who were already living near or below the poverty line have been pushed even further behind. Temporary market closures and disruptions to transportation have meant small traders, informal workers and farmers were unable to earn an income. Poor or absent labour laws and insufficient social safety nets have left most without any support to shoulder these losses. And despite many countries having largely loosened Covid-19 restrictions, the price of staple goods such as food and transportation remain higher than expected around the world, leaving cash-strapped households struggling to make ends meet. Some are taking out loans or selling off assets to meet daily needs, which could push them even further behind in the medium to long term.

There’s no doubt the Covid-19 crisis has set the world off-course from the momentum that had been building over the last 20 years towards the eradication of extreme poverty. But if hope is to be found amidst this sombre reality, it’s in the knowledge that we have twenty years of learnings on how to tackle extreme poverty at our disposal to get the world back on track. If we can band together to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, the same can be done to get us back on track to end extreme poverty.

Over the last 18 months, the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network and its research partners have been speaking to people in or near poverty about the nature of the struggles they’ve been facing. Repeated interviews with over 200 people in rural and urban areas across eight countries show that different groups have been affected by the pandemic in different ways, and impacts vary by country. Yet we found there are some general areas where local, national and international support could make a real difference in mitigating the worst of the pandemic’s effects and helping people to get back on track.

Four key policies needed to get back on track to end extreme poverty:

  1. Recalibrate and better target cash transfers is needed to address the loss of livelihoods and jobs that people have experienced and protect them from future shocks. Most of our respondents had no access to social protection throughout the crisis, and while those that did cited it as a critical lifeline, it was often inadequate and unpredictable. While many countries have adjusted or expanded existing social protection measures, the pandemic has reinforced the urgent need for adequate universal social protection.
  2. Put measures in place to address inflation. The price of staple goods remains exceptionally high despite the easing of pandemic-related restrictions. Many households we’ve spoken to are still eating one less meal a day than before the pandemic or are eating inferior foods to curb costs. Understanding the root causes of persistent inflation and adopting measures to protect poor households from predatory marketing including greater price transparency and state-supported food safety nets are needed.
  3. Invest in making food systems more resilient to ensure all segments of societies in urban and rural areas can access adequate, safe and nutritious food. Respondents in many rural areas are citing lower than expected prices for their goods despite high prices being paid by consumers. Support to higher-value agricultural production, the formulation of local agri-development plans, and further improvements to logistics and rural infrastructure are needed.
  4. Intervene immediately to prevent irreparable damage from school closures to the future of the next generation through early marriages, unwanted pregnancies, increased child labour, and hopelessness experienced among many youths. Lost income during the pandemic has been cited as a leading cause of school dropouts among our respondents where households have not been able to raise school fees or where children have been forced to work to support their household’s income. Extending remote learning could be done through radio programmes or online learning accompanied by free internet access. Catch-up programmes could be introduced to bring back some groups of learners and adapted programmes for children that have left school for work or early marriage are also needed.

Getting back on track to end extreme poverty won’t be easy. Many countries are still trying to contain Covid-19 with public support systems and community resilience strategies already under strain. But the price of failing to rise to the challenge would be huge and could set the world off-course for decades to come.

Global and national policy actors must face this crisis and lean into the wealth of knowledge we already have to design effective and sustainable strategies to get us back on track to end extreme poverty.

And as global citizens, we must continue to push for the recognition of people’s right to be free from poverty and demand accountability from all sections of society, whether service providers, businesses or neighbourhood networks. In doing so we must seek out input from people living in or at risk of falling into poverty to ensure that they are agents in the changes that will affect them and support them to build resilience strategies to face the challenges that lie ahead.