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COVID-19 crisis highlights urgent need to transform global economy, says new UN poverty expert

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GENEVA (1 May 2020) – The economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need to invest heavily in a greener economy to create jobs and reduce inequalities, said Olivier De Schutter, who takes up his role today as the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

"The COVID-19 crisis is an urgent call for action. If we make the right choices now, it will be an opportunity to transform our society into a more inclusive and equal one," he added.

With a projected fall in per capita income in more than 170 countries, people without social protection will be worst hit, De Schutter said. Worldwide, about four billion people have no social protection coverage and those in precarious employment, including the 2 billion workers in the informal sector, are often the first to lose their jobs.

"In line with the Sustainable Development Goals, we must move away from a development paradigm that puts economic growth first, while hoping to wipe out the environmental damages and to compensate for the social impacts of increased inequalities afterwards. The model of growth itself should incorporate environmental sustainability and social justice from the start," said the expert. 

"In times of crisis of this magnitude, the pledge made within the International Labour Organization to implement universal social protection floors is ever more relevant and critical," De Schutter said.

The UN expert said social security programmes should be regarded as an investment, not a cost. "There are considerable benefits to society from investing in early childhood and social protection schemes that prevent low-income families from falling into poverty, if the recession is to be overcome."

Moreover, the financing of social protection is affordable: "On average, the cost of financing a full set of benefits included in social protection floors represent 4.2 percent of GDP on average for 57 low-income and lower-middle-income countries. This is the best investment a country can make for its future," De Schutter said.

States have committed at least $8 trillion to defend against the economic impacts of COVID-19. This should be directed towards building a more inclusive economy based on the rights to work and to social security, as well as the rights to adequate housing, healthcare and education.  

"Extreme poverty is not about a lack of income alone, or faults of individuals or families. It's about political choices that exclude, discriminate and marginalise people," De Schutter said.

As Special Rapporteur for the next three years, De Schutter will explore a range of thematic issues, including how universal social protection floors can be implemented through both domestic resources and international support.


Mr. Olivier De Schutter was appointed the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in March 2020 and takes up his functions on 1 May 2020. He is Professor of Law at UCLouvain and at SciencesPo (Paris, France) and has taught human rights at various universities around the world, including the College of Europe, Columbia University and Yale University. An expert on economic and social rights, he has served the UN as a Member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2015-2020) and the Special Rapporteur on the right to food (2008-2014).

As a Special Rapporteur, he is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Follow the Special Rapporteur on Twitter (@DeSchutterO) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/DeSchutterOlivier/)

For more information and media requests, please contact Junko Tadaki (+41 22 917 9298, jtadaki@ohchr.org) or Patricia Varela (+41 22 928 9234, pvarela@ohchr.org), or write to: srextremepoverty@ohchr.org 

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Xabier Celaya (+ 41 22 917 9445 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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