If the statistics produced by the United Nations are taken at face value, the world should give itself a pat on the shoulder for meeting part of the first target of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) five years ahead of the deadline. Goal One of the MDGs is ‘Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger’. This was subsequently split into three sections: (a) ‘Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1.25 a day’; (b) ‘Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people’; and (c) ‘Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.’
The UN is reporting that extreme poverty rates have been cut in half since 2010 and that extreme hunger still needs to be tackled. According to the UN, “the global poverty rate at $1.25 a day fell in 2010 to less than half the 1990 rate. 700 million fewer people lived in conditions of extreme poverty in 2010 than in 1990. However, at the global level 1.2 billion people are still living in extreme poverty.”
What the statistics obtained by the UN do not reveal is how many people now classified as no longer living under extreme poverty (set at having an income of less than US$1.25 a day) are barely just tipping the scales at US$1.25–US$1.50, which really would not have improved their circumstances much, if at all. Statistics after all are just figures and often cannot tell the whole story. Extreme poverty has the capacity to cling to those thus afflicted; much like a leech attaches itself to the flesh to suck the blood of its unwilling host dry. It has the capability of being passed on through generations, much like a defective gene that passes an illness from parent to child and for posterity. It can remain within families like an unwanted inheritance, an old house that they can neither maintain nor rid themselves of.
Extreme poverty has a human face and some of us have seen it. It is visible in places like Plastic City. This newspaper reported three years ago on the then 23-year-old Susan Ramdass and 24-year-old Pinky Ganga, who had lived there all their lives and had just started their own families right there, having upgraded their ‘home’ building materials from plastic to old boards, wattles and old pieces of zinc. It is evident in the plight of nine children of Warapoka, Region One, now left motherless after their mother died while giving birth late last month. The woman, Sandra La Cruz-Henry, wife of the Toshao of Warapoka, an Amerindian settlement located in the Waini River delivered her ninth child and subsequently bled to death. The child survived.
Extreme poverty is manifest in the recent double murder at Moblissa, where a mother of seven and one of her children were chopped and allegedly stabbed to death by her 20-year-old stepbrother after she reported to the police that he had committed a crime against another family member. The reason it was easy for the alleged assailant to gain access to the home of 34-year-old Molly James was not because she let him in, but because it was impossible to keep him out, or anyone else for that matter. Ms James and her seven children lived in a camp-like structure that had at least three wooden walls and was covered by tarpaulin.
There was no way to lock anyone out and Ms James would have been unable to provide any security for herself and her children, including a seven-month-old baby. There are too many more stories, not just in Guyana, but around the world, that are similar to those of Ramdass, Ganga, Henry and James.
Norway’s former environmental minister Erik Solheim best describes the situation regarding extreme poverty. He says it is not just about living on less than US$1.25 a day. “It is about much more than being hungry, ill-housed, and unable to properly care for and educate the next generation. Poverty is also about vulnerability, humiliation, discrimination, exclusion and inequity.”
While noting that there have been positive results in the fight against poverty, he, like economist and Director of the Earth Institute Dr Jeffrey Sachs, believes that it will take resources, wisdom, experience, ingenuity and political will to reverse the plight of the poorest of the poor. Indeed, ending extreme poverty is attainable and it will take all of these things along with compassion. It has to mean more to all of us than just statistics and numbers.