Eradication of multidimensional poverty and the role of the UN

by Sudha Sreenivasa Reddy [*]

Despite decades of “development”, poverty continues to be a scourge of international society. In many cases, despite improvements on some fronts, levels of poverty are actually increasing as international disparities deepen and as more and more groups of people are marginalized even in the rich countries. Together with the overall number of poor, the number of the “absolute poor” also increases, namely those who are unable to meet their daily nutritional requirements calculated in terms of calories. The numbers would be far higher if other aspects of a dignified quality of life were considered.

Inequality has numerous dimensions-economic, social, political and cultural. Inequality as a politico–economic concern has been subjected to intense multi-disciplinary debates over the decades. The governments of the various countries often announce schemes and measures to eliminate inequality but little is achieved in practice.  Large sections of the population are deprived of the basic necessities of life.

Eighty-two percent of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest one percent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorer half of the world saw no increase in their wealth. According to the Oxfam Report 2018 ‘Reward Work, Not Wealth’, the global economy enables the wealthy global elite to accumulate vast fortunes, while hundreds of millions of people are kept at the bottom or are even forced to struggle for survival.

Understanding poverty

Understanding persistent poverty necessitates understanding the multiple, interlinked causes at different levels of human suffering, the complexity of human experience of insecurity that systematically marginalizes and deprives the people of their right to food, health, safe drinking water, education, and other rights such as credit, livelihood resources, etc. This means that they are excluded from their rightful access to resources, opportunities and empowerment.

Poverty is not merely objective but also subjective. It undermines one’s self esteem and potential. For instance, over the past decade, more than 300,000 of India’s debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide, as they are unable to repay loans to banks and private money lenders, thus creating an agrarian crisis which successive governments have done little to address. Besides several causes such as corporate-driven, chemical-drenched, neo-liberal economic policies, monsoon failure, climate change, loans for high cost seeds, GM seeds, chemical pesticides, fertilizers, lack of or little minimum support price, one of the unnoticed socio-psychological factors for taking such an extreme step by the vulnerable small and marginal farmers is to escape from facing humiliation in the midst of their communities and fear of falling into abject poverty.

As a context for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which calls for “ending poverty in all its forms everywhere” and for “leaving no one behind”, the 2018 Global Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) has elaborated poverty beyond income by adding three key dimensions: health, education and standards of living.

“The 2018 global MPI covers 105 countries in total. They are home to 77 per cent of the world’s population, or 5.7 billion people, of whom 23 per cent (1.3 billion) are identified as multidimensionally poor. These people are being left behind in multiple ways, lacking such basic things as clean water, sanitation, adequate nutrition, or primary education”.

 The report goes on to argue that “Multidimensional poverty is found in all developing regions of the world, but is particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These two regions together account for 83% of all multidimensionally poor people in the world – more than 1.1 billion. Two-thirds of all multidimensionally poor people live in middle-income countries. 889 million people in middle-income countries experience deprivations in nutrition, schooling, and sanitation, just like those in low-income countries. India has the largest number of people living in multidimensional poverty in the world, about 364 million people.

The level of global child poverty is shocking: children account for virtually half (49.9%) of the world’s poor. Worldwide, over 665 million children live in multidimensional poverty.  In 35 countries, at least half of all children are MPI poor. Multidimensional poverty is much more intense in rural areas. Globally there are 1.1 billion people living in multidimensional poverty in rural areas and 0.2 billion people living in multidimensional poverty in urban areas. The starkest differences between rural and urban poverty are in countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. (The 2018 Global MPI Report)

Globalization, (neo-)liberal economics, geo-political conflicts and poverty

Any discussion about poverty is incomplete without a conversation around the impact of the neoliberal market economy and the dominant corporate globalization on the lives of vulnerable people, especially in the Global South.

The ‘man made’ environmental crisis, economic and financial crisis and food crisis are interdependent and interconnected, created by the greedy and competitive liberal economic globalization. The human induced environmental crisis has been speeded-up by the dominant economic system with its inherent quest for profit-maximization and its consequent disregard for human and ecological needs.  Local livelihoods are thus sacrificed for the sake of extracting natural resources, which are transformed into commodities. They are then marketed, processed and used primarily in the North, while the waste produced is disposed back in the South.

The impact of this ecological crisis and neo-liberal economics is being especially felt by the poor living in both rural and urban areas. The effect of a globalized market economy is that local communities experience a change in their local markets. The economic opportunities for the local products are increasingly taken over by internationally marketed products, resulting in further poverty as well as loss of traditional skills and experience. In the process, community leadership is losing its influence on the management of natural resources, leading to further deterioration of the local eco-systems and the income that can be derived from them. Already severely hit are small farmers, women, indigenous communities, pastoralists, and fisher-folk, and the landless.

The soaring food crisis threatens to derail the economies of entire regions, as acute food insecurity increasingly manifests itself on the streets of several poor countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America. The food crisis in the Global South is not a sudden emergence but a creation of deliberate policies, laws and prescriptions of International Financial Institutions. The IMF and World Bank-induced Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) have enforced the trade liberalization regime in the pursuit of the new economic policies of liberalization of agriculture, the backbone of millions. These institutions with their policies have turned food, genetic codes, flora, fauna, seeds and even natural resources like water and forests that nourish and provide people with a secure livelihood into commodities for sale, open to speculation in the global market. In the past such resources were a genuine ‘Commons’. This process is not mere privatization but also consolidation of the entire food chain and its control by a few multinational companies often beyond the control of individual states.

With increasing economic and social disparities, multidimensional poverty is not limited to the poor and developing countries. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the number of low-income working families in the United States increased to 10.4 million in 2011, up from 10.2 million a year earlier. This means that nearly one third of all working families— 32 percent—may not have enough money to meet basic needs. Can we become self-sufficient in energy, fully protect our environment, feed the world, and advance economic development, all at the same time, and yet slow our growth down to sustainable levels and retreat to a smaller and fairer share of the world’s raw material resources? These are the questions to be answered if we need to achieve sustainable development in real terms. And the answer to these questions lies in an integrated approach to our planning in all spheres. 

In addition to persisting multidimensional poverty it is imperative to recognize the emerging geo-political challenges that are compelling the people into forced displacement and insecurity. The unprecedented increase in political conflicts, social violence and civil unrest result in irreparable destruction of human communities and the environment, with an exodus of the masses to an uncertain future. With the current backdrop of the spike in violence in the Middle East and Africa and the Western response strategy of a war on terror, there appears to be a politics of violence spiralling out of control, with no exit strategy. It may usher in an epoch where precipitous conflict affects civilians in every part of the globe. Not in many decades has the world seen such huge streams of refugees on the way to an unreliable future; trapped in rootlessness and new forms of poverty, even slavery.

What do the well-intended Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) mean to the millions of displaced refugees with no identity globally? Do the Sustainable Development Goals have any meaning for the millions of starving innocent victims of geo-political wars and ethnic cleansing; vulnerable women, children and old people, who are in no way responsible for their distress in Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Myanmar? Widespread poverty in multiple shapes and shades is not only an international disgrace morally and a sign of political failure, but is also a major challenge to international security and to the internal stability of countries with large levels of social inequality.

The role of the UN system in fighting poverty – what reforms are needed?

The global response to this massive, multifarious global problem has been patchy and ineffective, perhaps because of half-heartedness of dominant actors. Many conventional approaches such as bi-lateral aid, the “Millennial Villages” proposed by the economist Jeffrey Sachs, the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank, and many others, have proved inadequate to the scale and persistence of the problem. With the dominance of the Bretton Woods institutions, who govern the economic order of the world, the role of the UN system as a major player in regulating destructive growth is marginalized. The attempted imposition of uncontrolled “technical” solutions for virtually every issue aggravates feelings of exclusion, insecurity and inequality among the deprived.

The goals set out by the UN, initially in the Millennium Development Goals, and subsequently in the Sustainable Development Goals, while providing a roadmap and sets of objectives do not contain concrete proposals for how to actually accomplish them. The UN itself is beset with internal problems (for example, the ever-pending reform of the Security Council) and with the challenges of major structural changes in the international environment since its inception in the post-World War II years.

To address the problem of poverty with any degree of effectiveness it is important to recognize the shifts in the world order since the 1940s, which intensified after the end of the Cold War. These shifts include the expansion of globalization with its many negative as well as positive effects, cuts in welfare spending as many states reduce public spending, the emergence of large new categories of poor people, including refugees and children (who were rarely considered as a specific category), diminishing food and nutrition security for many, including in the “First World” and the probably long-term effects of climate change on vulnerable populations, in particular those dependent on agriculture.

The UN organization and its network of specialized agencies (“the UN system”) is the only truly multilateral system of global governance, and one which does not have an agenda of its own, being essentially driven by the interests of its member states. Nevertheless, the UN should not be identified only with its political work: it is actually in the specialized agencies that most of its real work is carried out, especially in response to issues of a developmental nature. While we can only speculate about how much worse the world situation would be without the intervention of the UN, we can certainly agree that major reforms are necessary in the current world situation. These, in relation to poverty, include:

  • Recognize that half of the population of the world is female, and ensure that both for reasons of strengthening this productive resource and as an inalienable dimension of social justice gender equality in all fields should be enhanced and ensured; work together with social and solidarity economics to build such a space of equality.
  • For the UN’s own staff, ensure that women occupy pivotal positions in the organization and the broader UN system agencies.
  • Emphasis should be placed on the part of relevant UN agencies on effective poverty reduction. This applies in particular to UNDP and UNICEF, but also should involve the re-orientation of the ILO, WHO, FAO, UNEP, UNHCR.
  • Much more coordination between UN agencies (e.g. UNDP and UNEP) in relation to the effects of climate change.
  • Re-focus aid on poverty, as well as infrastructural projects, on employment generation and on gender sensitivity and specific identification of vulnerable groups.
  • Promote partnership agreements that encourage and strengthen local and regional leadership and promote social initiatives in collaboration with all stakeholders in genuine support for the poor.
  • Move towards genuine sustainability and ensure the well-being of coming generations by promoting both intergenerational solidarity between people and nations and creating appropriate institutions of a kind that cannot be undermined by the logic and practices of the dominant economic system.
  • Put increasingly emphasis on sustainable alternative economic models, such as social and solidarity economy.
  • Engage systematically women, NGOs and humanitarian relief organizations in peace negotiations and peace building outside the UN system.
  • Ensure close monitoring of global trends and rapid response to emerging problems.
  • Link the UN’s political work, peacekeeping activities and Responsibility to Protect to poverty and developmental issues – in other words, the development of a holistic perspective within the UN system.
  • Committed application of the UN Charter for establishing a peaceful global environment through demilitarization and reduced arms in pursuit of a greater peace dividend.
  • Promote models of global governance that address persisting poverty and developmental issues and not only political and large scale economic ones. This involves a critical reflection of processes of globalization and its implications for the average citizen, especially in the ‘less developed’ countries (the so-called “Bottom Billion”).
  • Ensure dedicated impartial efforts in implementing stringent legal procedures against any country or private business group, which indulges directly or indirectly in destroying global commons and causing conflict in the world.
  • Expand the research capacities of UN agencies and in particular the United Nations University in relation to poverty and hunger issues.
  • As complimentary to the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, explore a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities to stimulate the application of the principle of precaution, to encourage sustainable use of natural resources, and to enhance social equity and well-being.


Democracy, development and peace are interlinked. The existing democratic processes and practices give individuals the right to pursue and maximize self-interest at the cost of social justice. The existing legal frameworks also provide individuals the right of having private property without concern for the common good.  The common good today should be defined in terms of sustainable growth based on equity and justice. This also calls for an alternative democratic framework in which the sustainability and well-being of all is the responsibility of everybody. We need to denounce the greed-based economy, which pursues not the common good and the service to humanity but individual accumulation. This is evidently being expressed in the ‘Grand Narrative’ of FOGGS.

Responsible Economics according to Dr. J.C. Kumarappa (Gandhian Economist), E.F. Schumacher, Karl Marx and many other socially-minded economists stand for social justice, well-being and dignity of all equally, including the weakest. This means a system of production, distribution and consumption driven by the need to provide for the basic necessities of even the very last person, in ways that ensure respect for the higher values of life – human dignity, non-violence and creative labour.

Now is high time for The United Nations to revisit the holistic and sustainable economic philosophies of visionaries and practitioners apart from the present dominant politico-economic model engulfing the entire humanity and ecosystems. This is the time to recognize that peaceful co-existence among humans and between nations is possible only on the basis of a multiplicity of compassionate perspectives that will offer diverse and plural solutions for secure, equitable and sustainable futures.

“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.” –Confucius, Chinese Teacher and Philosopher


Sudha S. Reddy is a member of the Advisory Board of the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS). She founded and directs the Eco Foundation for Sustainable Alternatives (EFSA) based in Bangalore, India, focusing on the holistic empowerment and sustainable development of the underprivileged and marginalized rural, urban and indigenous communities, with an emphasis on women, children and youth at the grassroots through direct intervention. Sudha has more than 25 years of experience in social action and the development sector in India and worldwide, academic researching and teaching on capacity building and organizational development, advocacy and campaign.

[*] This article was prepared in the context of the UN2100 Initiative of FOGGS. An abridged version has been published on