Skip to main content

Statements Special Procedures

Oral Statement by Mr. Olivier De SchutterSpecial Rapporteur on extreme povertyand human rights44th session of the Human Rights Council

07 July 2020

Geneva, 7 July 2020


Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to present to the Human Rights Council the final report of my predecessor in the mandate of Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston.

Professor Alston, a tireless advocate of human rights on the international scene since forty years, was formerly a member and chairperson of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. Today, in his final report as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Alston cautions us against the self-congratulatory message of the international community concerning the fight against poverty.

According to the official narrative, we would have succeeded between 1990 and 2015 in reducing the number of people in extreme poverty from 1.9 billion to 736 million, and from 36 per cent to 10 per cent of the world's population. This figure however, Professor Alston remarks, is based on a very weak, unsatisfactory measure of poverty: the international poverty line used by the World Bank, of 1.90 USD per day. This corresponds (in parity of purchasing power) to 1.41 euros per day in Portugal, to 7.49 yuan per day in China, to 22,49 pesos per day in Mexico, or 355.18 naira per day in Nigeria. Moreover, this boasted success in the reduction of poverty has in fact much to do with developments in a single country, China, which has succeeded in reducing poverty from 750 million people in 1990 to a mere 10 million in 2015. Indeed, leaving out China, the number of people living below the 2.50 USD per day would barely have changed throughout this period, and it would have increased by 140 million people in Sub-Saharan African and the Middle East.

Therefore, Professor Alston calls us to adopt a much more realistic measure of poverty, based on the satisfaction of basic needs and individuals' capabilities. Indeed, we could go much further, and perhaps question today the money-metric measure of poverty that is usually relied on in these international classifications. If you speak to people in poverty and ask them about their experience of poverty, they will tell you about the anguish, the stress, the disempowerment, the discrimination and the social and institutional abuse. In my work as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, I intend to focus on these "hidden dimensions" of poverty -- on discrimination based on socio-economic condition, on the causes of the intergenerational transmission of poverty, and on the role of investment in early childhood.

In his final report, Professor Alston has three key messages concerning the structural causes of extreme poverty.

First, we should move away from an almost exclusive focus on economic growth as a means to reduce poverty and focus rather on the reduction of inequalities and the redistribution of wealth. Indeed, in the name of achieving growth, we have lowered corporate tax rates (from an average of 40 per cent in 1980 to 24 per cent in 2019); we have tolerated aggressive practices of tax avoidance by transnational corporations (leading to a loss of revenue for States amounting to 650 billion USD per year); we have encouraged the deregulation of labour markets; and we have privatized public services, leading to an increase in users' fees.

So, instead, we need to support tax justice, and to ensure that all countries can mobilize sufficient domestic resources in order to invest in social protection floors for all. In my mandate, I intend to work together with many others on the establishment of a new international financial facility, the so-called "global fund for social protection", to support poor countries' efforts to finance social protection, to close the financing gap -- some 527 billion USD per year for all 134 developing countries -- that, today, makes it impossible for them to provide social protection floors for all. I welcome your collaboration in this effort.

The second message of Professor Alston in his final report is that we should be cautious about philanthropy, that should not become a substitute for the protective role of governments. Philanthropy, he notes, is neither democratic nor transparent, and should not relieve governments from their duty to protect the human right to social security for all.

Thirdly and finally, Professor Alston calls for deepening democracy and embracing participatory governance. Indeed, throughout his mandate, he has been emphasizing the links between political disempowerment and economic marginalization. I strongly believe that by involving people in poverty in designing solutions, we can gain in legitimacy; we can broaden our political imagination by building on their social innovations; and we can recognize their contribution to identify solutions that can work best for them.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

During the past year, Professor Alston also conducted two country visits, respectively in Malaysia in August 2019 and in Spain earlier this year.

In Malaysia, Professor Alston could witness -- and I quote from the report -- the "immense progress on poverty alleviation", attributable to the fact that economic growth in Malaysia, that was very impressive during the past thirty years, primarily benefited the 40 per cent lowest income earners. However, at the same time, Professor Alston expresses a concern that the national poverty line is still set too low (below 2 USD per day, 8 Malaysian ringgit) for it to be significant. According to this official poverty line, only 0.4 per cent of the Malaysian would be living in extreme poverty -- a mere 25,000 families. This if course is not a useful guide for public action. And indeed, the report highlights that there are three groups that are particularly at risk of falling between the cracks of social protection systems: the urban poor; the indigenous people (some 13 per cent of the population, mostly in Sabah and Sarawak); and migrants, non-citizens, particularly women migrant workers employed as domestic workers.

Finally, in his report concerning Spain, which he visited between 27 January and 7 February 2020, Professor Alston looks at a rich country -- a rich country, however, which still has more than one quarter of its population at risk of poverty or social exclusion, and which faces of housing crisis of huge proportions, as well as a structurally high level of youth unemployment.

The relevance of the findings of the report seems confirmed by recent developments concerning Spain that led to public statements I have issued on this country. On 3 June, I welcomed the introduction in Spain of the minimum income scheme, benefiting some 1.6 million people in extreme poverty, while calling on the removal of any bureaucratic hurdles that could reduce the rate of take-up. More recently, on 26 June, I expressed my concern about the situation of migrant seasonal workers employed in the strawberry-picking industry in Huelva, in the province of Andalousia, working under exploitative conditions and staying in sub-standard housing. These are two topics discussed, inter alia, in the report presented on Spain by Professor Alston.

I would like to thank you for allowing this interactive dialogue with the Human Rights Council and I look forward to our exchange.