The – Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights – for the UN was released this week (July 7, 2020). It was Philip Alston’s last report in that role. It is a shocking indictment of the way neoliberalism has distorted our societies and the way the governments with the capacity to ‘move mountains should they wish’ have been co-opted as agents of capital and perpetuate those distortions. The Report is 19 pages of horror. It also resonates with the latest information coming out of Australia’s Closing the Gap campaign, which aims to bring indigenous Australians up to the material level of non-indigenous Australians. The first ten years of the campaign have been an abject failure. And the latest targets don’t inspire any confidence that the outcomes will be any different. A lot of talk. A lot of consultants. But little effective action – for example, like just creating some jobs to reduce unemployment, allow for income security and poverty alleviation. How hard is it for the government to create some jobs?
The UN Report brings all the issues to a head:
The world is at an existential crossroads involving a pandemic, a deep economic recession, devastating climate change, extreme inequality, and an uprising against racist policies. Running through all of these challenges is the longstanding neglect of extreme poverty by many governments, economists, and human rights advocates.
I could have ended today’s post there really.
All of these ‘threats’ are manufactured by the neoliberal order and the compliance of states, and, dare I say, progressives, the latter who would rather feel good about themselves throwing statues into canals than facing up to the reality that our traditional Left parties have completely abandoned the space.
The UN Report highlights a number of failures in the way the international community is dealing with poverty:
1. “COVID-19 is projected to push more than 70 million additional people into extreme poverty, and hundreds of millions more into unemployment and poverty”.
2. “More than 250 million people are at risk of acute hunger.”
3. “Poor people and marginalized communities have been the hardest hit in almost every country, both in terms of vulnerability to the virus and its economic consequences.”
4. “Climate change, temporarily eclipsed from the front pages, is also on target to exacerbate the phenomenon of ‘climate apartheid,’ ensuring that low- income people bear the brunt of unconscionable climate policies designed to protect the status quo.”
5. “And governments continue to pour money into repressive practices and carceral systems, while depriving poor communities of basic rights such as decent healthcare, housing, and education.”
Emphatically, the UN Report:
… criticizes the mainstream pre-pandemic triumphalist narrative that extreme poverty is nearing eradication
You know the story – ‘we are nearing full employment’, ‘never had workers had it so good’, ‘the Eurozone is about convergence’, etc
The UN Report argues that the only way we can claim any progress to eliminating world poverty is because we rely on a ridiculously and deliberately set low hurdle – the “World Bank’s measure of extreme poverty”.
Using more appropriate measures shows “only a slight decline in the number of people living in poverty over the past thirty years.”
Further the “Millennium Development Goals” and the “Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” are inadequate and set up to distort reality.
At the centre is the World Bank (surprise surprise) who use their “financial and intellectual clout” to:
… ensure that almost all of the most glowing accounts of progress use its IPL statistics.
IPL is their ‘international poverty line’ measure.
It is “not based on any direct assessment of the cost of essential needs” and is “well below the national poverty lines of most countries”.
So it is little wonder using the World Bank data that poverty declines are substantial. The reality is clearly different.
The UN Report talks about a “scandalous lack of ambition” and the IPL:
… is explicitly designed to reflect a staggeringly low standard of living, well below any reasonable conception of a life with dignity.
The World Bank’s response to the criticisms over the years has been to remain “resolutely ambivalent”.
In recent days, the Victorian government has introduced very harsh lockdown rules on some low-income residential towers in Melbourne. They say they are to protect the residents but they are also protecting the well-heeled who continue to enjoy more freedom.
The problem gets worse in poorer nations.
The UN Report notes that:
The public health community’s mantra for coping with COVID-19 encapsulates the systemic neglect of those living in poverty. The pithy advice to “stay home, socially distance, wash hands, and see a doctor in case of fever” highlights the plight of the vast numbers who can do none of these things. They have no home in which to shelter, no food stockpiles, live in crowded and unsanitary conditions, and have no access to clean water or affordable medical care. Far from being the “great leveler,” COVID-19 is a pandemic of poverty, exposing the parlous state of social safety nets for those on lower incomes or in poverty around the world.
If social protection floors had been in place, the hundreds of millions left without medical care, adequate food and housing, and basic security would have been spared some of the worst consequences.
Why are these floors absent?
Mainstream economists telling governments that fiscal surpluses are responsible when social housing is depleted, when people haven’t enough work, when public health is being degraded, and all the rest of it.
I doubt many of these economists, most with well-paid tenured positions, are doing it tough at present.
The UN Report concludes that in relation to poverty, these goals:
… call for an ‘end to poverty in all its forms everywhere.’ Yet the targets set do not actually seek to eliminate poverty … [the] … targets are patently inadequate to actually end poverty, and the prospects of achieving them are rapidly receding.
The same can be said for the advancement of human rights.
The UN Report criticises the reliance on privatisation to deliver the goals, “especially for the most vulnerable whose inclusion may not be profitable”.
Reliance on private sector funding will not achieve sustained improvements. Where profit is the motive, social needs fall by the wayside.
The UN Report talks about the “cherry picking, self-promotion and self-positioning” of participants to the international discussions.
I once did some work to develop a development plan for an indigenous community in Australia. They used my services because the main consultant in this exercise was moving through the remote communities with his ‘cut and paste’ finger well and truly exercised, producing multiple reports that said the same motherhood statements about ‘complexity of challenge’, ‘difficulty with x’ etc and just altered the name of the community and other specific references.
Growth and poverty
The UN Report makes the obvious point that while mainstream economists urge economic growth, particularly export-led growth as a way ahead:
… the promised benefits of growth either don’t materialize or aren’t shared.
Poverty rates rise as large energy and mining projects extract resources from poor nations.
Cash-crop agriculture displaces communities, “separating people from land they depend on for food, shelter and livelihoods, and resulting in impoverishment.”
The IMF and World Bank model for development is really a big vacuum cleaner sucking out resources and wealth and leaving nothing for the locals.
And then they impose harsh austerity on the government in return for debt enslavement which attacks public health, education and infrastructure.
The UN Report rejects the assertion by mainstream economists that:
… pro-market policies automatically benefit the poor …
The claim is “at odds with the evidence”.
They favour global corporations and harm citizens through:
1. “poorer labor conditions”.
2. “weaker labor rights”.
3. “decreased state capacity”.
4. “reduced healthcare access”.
5. “higher neonatal mortality”.
Pretty much everything we should care about.
The UN Report calls for a a return to a central role for government.
In – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017) – we argued that the government didn’t just vanish.
It was co-opted and reconfigured by neoliberalism.
It is still central but has succumbed to all sorts of demands for legislation to tip the balance to capital.
He also rejected the neoliberal ‘public-private partnership’ model for delivering prosperity.
The UN special rapporteur said that as governments had adopted austerity measures:
… multinational companies and investors draw guaranteed profits from public coffers, while poor communities are neglected and underserved …
Closing the Gap – Australia
In part, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ surge in recent weeks characterises the dilemma.
Yes, racism is horrid.
Yes, as a white male I don’t perceive the issues of colour from an experiential perspective.
I don’t apologise for my whiteness nor my maleness. I am constantly vigilent of my status though and watchful.
But all the around the world I have seen a lot of symbolic ‘middle class’ activity – flags being burned, statues ripped down, police departments being threatened with dissolution, etc – but not a lot of awareness of a sustained solution.
Why haven’t the middle class staged global street marches over the last 30 years to protest about mass unemployment and underemployment?
In Australia, we have had the – Close the Gap Campaign – which set out in 2008 to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged Australians – our indigenous people.
In many ways it illustrates all the things that Philip Alston was observing in his final report discussed above.
Lacking ambition in goals.
Flawed indicators and ridiculously low hurdles.
Lots of motherhood statements.
The – Closing the Gap Reprot 2020 – was released in February 2020.
When the campaign began in 2008, the goals by the end of 2018 in relation to employment were:
Halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade (by 2018).
The Report tells us that “The target … was not met”.
In fact, there was virtually no progress made over the decade.
Indigenous Australians have an employment rate of 49 per cent while for non-indigenous Australians it is 75 per cent.
The “gap has not changed markedly” over the decade.
On other goals:
1. Child mortality – “the gap has not narrowed”.
2. School attendance, reading and numeracy – the targets “were not met”.
3. Life expectancy – “closing the gap in life expectancy within a generation is not on track to be met by 2031”
4. Early childhood education and Year 12 targets “on track”.
The campaign has largely failed in other words.
In the last week, there has been a lot of publicitly about a new ‘agreement’ among leaders for the next decade.
Among the more bizarre targets to emerge was that the Campaign was considering a target to achieve parity in incarceration rates (currently heavily skewed towards indigenous Australians) across indigenous and non-indigenous by … wait for it … you couldn’t make this up … 2 …. 0 …. 9 …. 3. Yes, 2093.
It is almost too large a number for me to calculate how many generations of indigenous Australians will be locked up unnecessarily – usually for crimes of poverty – while banksters who defraud people of their life savings roam free enjoying the largesse that they illegally socked away in some legal trust or something similar.
Here is the data:
1. Indigenous Australians equal 3.3 per cent of the total population per the 2016 Census.
2. They make up around 29 per cent of the total prison inmates.
3. According to ABS data – Prisoners in Australia, 2019 – the imprisonment rate for indigenous Australians has risen by 60.6 per cent between 2009 and 2019 – the period since the Closing the Gap campaign began in 2008.
Non-indigenous imprisonment has risen by 44.4 per cent over the same period.
Withdrawing funds from the police would not seem to go to the heart of the problem.
Even imprisonment rates for non-indigenous are rising dramatically.
Why is that?
Neoliberalism has created a raft of losers.
In a world where aspirations are cultivated to mean success is a big house, huge SUV for driving kids to school, and all the rest of the mass consumption artefacts, increasing numbers of Australians are failing – perception wise.
Young people are being denied access to jobs.
And then they are called entrepreneurs because they drive around at break neck speeds on ill-suited scooters with big boxes delivering food and whatever to those too lazy to break with Netflix and go out.
For that they supply their own capital (scooters), earn a pittance, have no job security, no holiday pay, no sick pay, and no superannuation prospects.
They cannot access home mortgage loans because traditional lenders do not reward the precarious.
They cannot afford child care so how does that work?
And then to get the artefacts of success some realise that pushing drugs or selling their bodies pays well. Prison follows.
And this type of insecurity is creeping into the middle class.
After failing categorically to achieve the targets, the Closing the Gap campaign, which feeds a host of consultants, talks a lot, probably is now helping Zoom prosper, and all the rest of it, have a – new national agreement – which has been labelled an “historic new deal”.
The co-chair of the Joint Council, an indigenous woman, claimed that:
We are making history … A real game changer for this next phase of Closing the Gap is that the expertise and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on what works and what is needed is at the centre.
Apparently, the new targets on matters such as employment, will be achieved by “structural reform across government”.
You may ask what that buzz phrase means? For I don’t know.
The new “draft targets” under Economic Development are:
1. “65% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (15-24 years) are in employment, education or training by 2028.”
2. “60% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25-64 years are employed by 2028.”
So another 8 years.
Why, for example, are the targets so low? So drawn out?
What ‘structural change’ in government will allow these targets to be met?
Stand ready for failure to be announced in 2028.
The only change that the government(s) in Australia have to make is to take responsibility for ensuring that there is full employment.
Why wait until 2028? When in fact, we have been waiting for decades.
What do you think would happen if the Australian government just announced today that there was to be a Job Guarantee and anyone who wanted to work at a decent, socially-inclusive wage could get a job unconditionally?
The gap would close very quickly.
The only ‘structural changes’ necessary within government are to change the sign of Centrelink (the overseer of the unemployment industry) with a Job Guarantee office sign and send the staff inside away for some re-education to disabuse them of the sociopathological tendencies that the pernicious unemployment system has required them to exhibit when dealing with the most disadvantaged citizens.
I recall a meeting in South Africa where all sorts of high level officials were present describing the unemployment problem there as a ‘complex, multidimensioned problem’ that ‘evades solution’, etc. This sort of self-style narrative is often heard in these gatherings.
Consultants and officials from multilateral agencies talking big, making themselves sound erudite and committed.
At that meeting, when it was my time to speak, I asked what is complex and multidimensional about creating some jobs!
Anytime the government creates jobs, unemployment falls and workers can rise out of poverty.
Pretty simple actually.
I will write more about our plans under JUST2030 to offer real solutions and to better articulate the challenge that is faced in the coming weeks.
Our work is gathering pace.
And as the UN Report notes, we ned to:
… to avoid sleepwalking towards assured failure while pumping out endless bland reports
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.