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Global action needed for 2.2 billion ‘poor or near-poor’, says UN

UNDP Administrator Helen Clark at the HDR 2014 launch event in Tokyo. UNDP

Some 1.5 billion people in 91 countries are living in poverty right now. An additional 800 million are on the brink of poverty. The global community needs to get in order and work together so that fewer people are living in poverty, says the United Nations Development Programme.

The UN agency released its annual Human Development Report today. It takes stock of the progress of development in every country in the world each year. The accompanying Human Development Index that is a part of the report acts as a sort of scorecard for countries.

This year’s report that steady progress against poverty has come under threat. Natural and man-made disasters have led to significant set-backs over the past few years. Last year saw the Central African Republic and South Sudan descend into a violent political crisis. Meanwhile, the Philippines was slammed by a typhoon, taking thousands of lives and causing billions of dollars in damage and economic loss. Income inequality and changing food prices are also held to blame for some of the more recent challenges.

“If people remain at risk of slipping back into poverty because of structural factors and persistent vulnerabilities, development progress will remain precarious,” says Helen Clark, Administrator for UNDP, in the report introduction. “The eradication of poverty is not about ‘getting to zero’ – it is about staying there.”

The issues of vulnerability and resilience were looked at together for the first time through a development lens, said Clark. Hence their inclusion in the report’s title. Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience, as the report is named, is generally aimed at global policymakers. Identifying how countries are progressing and what needs to be done is supposed to help inform national policies and donor activities. This year the focus is to look at how some countries are better able to handle and avert problems, such as natural disasters or conflict.

“If you are poor, you are less able to handle several shocks; you may also be disabled, you may also be older. So you have more layers of things against you,” Khalid Malik, the report’s lead author said at a press conference.

Resilience building has emerged as an increasingly popular topic in development circles over the past few years. It was spoken of often when the Horn of Africa was beset by famine three years ago. Aid workers pointed out that steps could have been taken to alleviate much of the stresses felt by people in the region when rains did not come. United States Agency for International Development Administrator Raj Shah has spoken often about the desire for resilience building to be a part of the agency’s activities.

The benefits of making investments so that people can better deal with the hardships of life are obvious. So are the savings. It would cost less than 2% of global GDP to provide the most basic social security benefits for every person, says the report. Having such safety nets not only help catch people when they fall, but allow for them to more easily stand back up on their own and keep going forward.

That is where the international community comes in.

“It’s not a time to give up on development, it’s a time for all the traditional friends of development, like Japan, to be saying, ‘What more can I do?’, ‘What better could we do?'” said Clark to reporters while in Tokyo.

The countries at the bottom of the Human Development Index, Sierra Leone, Chad, Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Niger are all facing challenges right now. Chad and Niger are a part of the Sahel region of West Africa, an area that is vulnerable to drought and where millions of people are in need of humanitarian support right now. Nearby Sierra Leone is struggling to deal with an ongoing Ebola outbreak, adding to its existing challenges. Finally, CAR and DRC have experienced years of instability, putting people at great risk and creating a situation where people cannot meet their basic needs.

“Vulnerability has multiple causes and consequences. Reducing vulnerability is a key ingredient in any agenda for improving human development. But if we are to succeed in reducing vulnerability, we need to approach it from a broad systemic perspective,” says Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, in the report.

HDI 2014


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]