Ending Poverty? Aye We Can

By Professor Stephen Sinclair, Scottish Poverty & Inequality Research Unit, Glasgow Caledonian University

Scotland has committed to two, remarkable and ambitious objectives in relation to poverty. The first is the commitment (abandoned by the UK government) to eradicate child poverty in Scotland by 2030. The second is signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals, which pledge 194 signatory countries to, among other things ‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere’. The truly striking and inspirational aspect of these commitments is that, for the first time in human history, both are realistically achievable.


Although some moral philosophers argue that you cannot infer what ought to happen from what is the case, most people would agree that if we have the capacity and opportunity to save lives then we have the duty to do so. That opportunity now exists in relation to poverty. We live in a ‘post-Malthusian’ world where there are sufficient, if not abundant, resources to wipe extreme poverty from the face of the earth. The levels of global economic development and productivity are such that the poverty which persists is optional rather than ineluctable. The Biblical injunction that ‘The poor you always have with you,’ is no longer binding. Because we can eradicate poverty we must.


Both a growing body of evidence and recent experience testify to the achievability of these goals. At a global level, the rate of poverty has halved since 2000. Despite the recent deep and prolonged economic crisis, the 21st century has seen the fastest reduction in extreme poverty in human history. This is part of a much longer trend in a considerable reduction in the proportion of people across the world experiencing poverty. Important though this success is, it is important not to get carried away – the definition of ‘extreme poverty’ in such estimates is meagre: measured as living on less than $1.25 a day. Nevertheless, for the first time ever it is possible to foresee the eradication of extreme poverty.


There have also been striking reductions in poverty among older people and households with children in the UK and Scotland over the past 15 or so years. Sadly, this progress has been halted or even reversed in more recent years. But the determinant factors during both the periods of improvement and decline were political choices not irresistible economic forces.


A lesson which can be drawn from both the Scottish experience and evidence from the rest of the world is that poverty persists because it is allowed to. Where there is sufficient political will, poverty can be significantly reduced or ended entirely. However to achieve this requires both vision and practical measures. It is important not to underestimate the importance of what a former US President once disparaged as ‘the vision thing’. Both hope and despair can be infectious. To overcome the inertia of resignation or scepticism, people must be convinced that policy aims are not only desirable but also achievable. Therefore the case must be made that eradicating poverty at home and abroad is not utopian but a realistic prospect. That is why affirming that ‘aye, we can end poverty really does matter. This requires publicising successes, such as the positive impacts achieved by Sure Start and Educational Maintenance Allowances. Highlighting such accomplishments can build a consensus and foundation for further action. Failing to do so can lead to a political backlash and cynicism that efforts were wasted by heedlessly ‘throwing money’ at social problems.


An important part of making the case to end poverty involves challenging what has until recently been the dominant story about how economic and social progress have been achieved. Successful and sustained economic development has not been based on laissez faire economics and free trade. Government intervention to regulate markets and social investment were indispensable factors in the waves of economic growth that originated in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and which transformed living standards in Asia in the post-WWII era. More recent examples of significant economic development and reductions in poverty and inequality (e.g. in Brazil, Bolivia, Malaysia and Mauritius) were achieved by investment in infrastructure (including housing), increasing educational opportunities improving health care, and extending social protection.


With the demise of the ‘Washington Consensus’ and evident limitations of market fundamentalism, it is increasingly clear that the measures required to end extreme poverty and extend prosperity are the same in both more and less developed countries. These include full employment, increased productivity, higher quality jobs, and social security provision that protects households against structural economic inefficiencies, disadvantage and discrimination.


The Scottish Government has committed to end child poverty at home and contribute to eradicating it across the world. The duty of campaigners is to ensure that they keep their promise, and of analysts to advise them how to make this inspiring vision a reality.