Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Poverty – 11th Meeting, 44th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council (English)


The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on the Parlous State of Poverty Eradication (A/HRC/44/40 Advanced Unedited Version).

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on the Visit to Malaysia (A/HRC/44/40/Add.1).

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on the Visit to Spain (A/HRC/44/40/Add.2).

The Council has before it the Comments by the State on the Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his visit to Malaysia (A/HRC/44/40/Add.3).

The Council has before it the Comments by the State on the Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his visit to Spain (A/HRC/44/40/Add.4).

Presentation of Reports by the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, presenting the final reports of his predecessor Philip Alston, warned against the self congratulatory message on the fight against poverty.

According to the official narrative, the world had 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, was based on a very weak, unsatisfactory measure of poverty : the international poverty line used by the World Bank, of $ 1.90 per day. Mr. Alston called for the adoption of a much more realistic measure of poverty, based on the satisfaction of basic needs and individuals’ capabilities. If one spoke to people in poverty and asked them about their experience of poverty, they would tell about the anguish, the stress, the disempowerment, the discrimination and the social and institutional abuse. In his own work as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Mr. de Schutter intended to focus on these “hidden dimensions” of poverty.

Concerning the structural causes of extreme poverty, Mr. Alston urged moving 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 ; being cautious about philanthropy, which should not become a substitute for the protective role of governments, as it was neither democratic nor transparent ; and deepening democracy and embracing participatory governance.

Mr. Alston had conducted two country visits, respectively to Malaysia in August 2019 and to Spain earlier this year. In Malaysia, Professor Alston had witnessed the “immense progress on poverty alleviation”, attributable to the fact that economic growth in Malaysia primarily benefited the 40 per cent lowest income earners. At the same time, he expressed concerns that the national poverty line was still set too low (below $ 2 per day, 8 Malaysian ringgit) to be significant. On Spain, he had noted it was a rich country which still had more than one quarter of its population at risk of poverty or social exclusion, and which faced a housing crisis of huge proportions, as well as a structurally high level of youth unemployment. On 3 June, Mr. de Schutter said he had welcomed the introduction in Spain of the minimum income scheme, benefiting some 1.6 million people in extreme poverty, while calling for the removal of any bureaucratic hurdles that could reduce the rate of take-up.

Statements by Concerned Countries

Malaysia, speaking as a concerned country, noted that it had submitted a detailed response to the report. Mr. Alston’s visit was a reflection of the Government’s commitment to alleviate poverty in the country and promote an inclusive development agenda. Malaysia had had 11 national development plans since independence to continuously lift the living standards of all Malaysians in an equitable manner. The country was carefully studying the recommendations in the report to be appropriately implemented where suitable. Some of the similar recommendations had already been incorporated earlier into the draft of the twelfth Malaysian Plan (2021-2025), which would be tabled in Parliament in early 2021. In addressing poverty, which had been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government had introduced the Economic Stimulus Package worth 260 billion Malaysian Ringgit. For the agriculture sector, a Food Security Fund worth 1 billion Malaysian Ringgit had been allocated to ensure sufficient and continuous food supply. In closing, Malaysia reaffirmed its commitment to continue pushing the human rights agenda forward, including in relation to poverty eradication.

Spain, speaking as a concerned country, stated that instruments such as this report were important ways of ensuring that States implemented their human rights commitments. Mr. Alston’s visit had been complex to organise, but it had been a success in the end, and while Spain did not agree with every recommendation, it had been a valuable experience. It was in the difficult task of suggesting specific measures and proposals where the report unfortunately fell short. The observations noted that the Spanish authorities were fully aware of the difficulties that marginalised groups faced, and were actively working towards mitigating them. The adoption of a minimum income would stimulate millions of households and ambitious measures to stimulate employment had similarly been taken in light of COVID-19.

Defensor del Pueblo de España, the national human rights institution of Spain, stated that the Special Rapporteur’s conclusions were devastating and indicated that not a lot of progress had been achieved. Housing was a significant problem in Spain, where clear inequalities existed, especially with regard to youth and vulnerable families, who needed protected public housing. There was a need to increase the housing supply. The problems in settlements in Huelva, in the province of Andalusia, could become issues of public health, if left unaddressed.

Interactive Dialogue

Speakers welcomed Olivier de Schutter in his role as the new Special Rapporteur, reiterated their support for his mandate, and recognised the obstacles to sustainable development, acknowledging a growing gap between and within States. The COVID-19 pandemic had had a devastating impact on poverty, and women and girls must not pay the heaviest price for this crisis, as recovery policies must be inclusive. The pandemic would have reverberating effects on social and economic rights in the long term, and speakers called for States to ensure it would not affect the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal One. Other speakers did not agree with the report’s call to recalibrate the 2030 Agenda to re-prioritise certain targets in favour of others. Everyone had to be part of the decision-making process, something that was important in the fight against extreme poverty in particular, as the extreme poor were rarely consulted. Speakers agreed with the report’s statement that the current definition of poverty was inadequate, and it must be defined by a multi-dimensional lens. Children were twice as likely as adults to be living in poverty, said speakers, reiterating the calls for universal coverage of social protection. Along with the impact of COVID-19, the climate crisis and increases in racial discrimination were significant obstacles to poverty eradication. Other speakers emphasised that unilateral coercive measures, especially when applied to developing countries, caused further entrenchment of poverty and unspeakable suffering, calling on States to work towards multilateralism instead.

Interim Remarks

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said that beyond the staggering figures on poverty and COVID-19, it was important to note that people who were already vulnerable prior to the pandemic would find themselves in a worse situation in its wake. People in poverty often suffered from comorbidities and weaker immune systems. They were overrepresented amongst manual workers who could not work from home. And yet, they had a more difficult access to health care services and social protection measures. The contraction of the economy was particularly problematic for developing countries facing strong demographic growth. Noting that 168 countries had adopted social protection measures to cushion the impact of the COVID-19, but that they were mostly temporary, he encouraged States to adopt a rights-based approach to social protection, in line with article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Interactive Dialogue

Speakers noted that there was an exponential growth forecast of global poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 90 million people expected to fall into extreme poverty, while drastic measures to contain the spread of the virus also disproportionately affected those who were already experiencing poverty. It was therefore essential to find international economic support for countries that were most affected by the pandemic. Some speakers stated that they would present a draft resolution on extreme poverty during this session that should be adopted by consensus. Post-COVID societies must be rebuilt better, speakers said, acknowledging that the fight against poverty was also a fight against inequality. States spoke about their efforts that focused on vulnerable populations such as the youth and those in rural areas. Developing countries relying on tourist industries had been especially hard hit by the pandemic. Speakers thus sought information on what specific measures to combat extreme poverty in light of the COVID-19 pandemic could be undertaken by low-income countries. According to certain speakers, the report laid bare false assumptions within the Sustainable Development Goals ; poverty was not merely an economic matter and efforts from a variety of social sectors were needed to eradicate it. Speakers emphasised that pandemics were the result of a destructive exploitation of nature, that was also causing the climate crisis, and that its economic effects were so devastating largely due to neoliberal austerity policies and cuts to social funding implemented by many countries in the last few decades.

Concluding Remarks

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, thanked Malaysia for its cooperation, Finland and Luxembourg for their financial support to the mandate, as well as Peru. Many of the measures put in place by countries to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic were temporary. This approach was akin to recruiting firefighters after the fire had broken out. In fulfilling the mandate, he would seek to address this issue and foster long-term solutions to poverty.

The UN Web TV video can also be accessed here