Following his three-year term as UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (May 2020 – June 2023), Olivier De Schutter’s mandate was extended at the 53rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council for a further three years (to June 2026).
Below he sets out his priorities for his second term:
Three years as UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights have led me to a conviction: economic growth is not a magic wand for ending poverty.
This statement flies in the face of the current orthodoxy.
Since the Second World War, the realization of economic and social rights, as well as poverty reduction, have been seen to depend on economic growth. In order to redistribute wealth and thus alleviate poverty, the argument goes, there must first be wealth created to redistribute. Moreover, growth is generally seen to hold the promise of job creation and the resulting taxes that finance the social protection schemes that help people break free from poverty.
This is the conventional wisdom. Even the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals maintain the attractiveness of economic growth as a means, if not the means, to end extreme poverty by 2030.
While I don’t deny that economic growth is still an important objective for low-income countries (although even here more must be done to make it less destructive), in middle and high-income countries the approach is hugely problematic for at least four reasons:
- Growth is not equally distributed: The past 40 years have been accompanied by a staggering rise in inequalities in most countries, and more economic growth now translates into very little, if anything, for those living in poverty. At the same time, as material opulence has grown, so too have social expectations and the number of people struggling to meet them – a key and often overlooked component of poverty.
- Growth may be counter-productive: Many countries have been encouraged to liberalize trade and foreign investment in the name of growth. This, however, has led States to compete to attract investment and improve their competitiveness in global supply chains, resulting in lowering taxes and regulatory burdens on businesses, thus depriving them of public revenue to finance public services and social protection. It is also in the pursuit of growth that labour markets have been made more “flexible” – with more casual work, lower wages and reduced protections for workers. Finally, the search for growth has led to a privatization of the « commons », depriving low-income communities from access to the resources, such as forests and water sources, on which they depend to meet essential needs. The world and its people have been transformed into resources to exploit – worsening inequalities and poverty.
- Growth leads us to cross planetary boundaries: The promise of « green growth” is that economic growth can be combined with a reduction of its ecological footprint. Yet the consensus within the scientific community is that « there is no empirical evidence supporting the existence of […] an absolute, global, permanent, and sufficiently fast and large decoupling of environmental pressures (both resources and impacts) from economic growth ». Our obsession with growth at all costs has had a devastating impact on the environment. And it should not be lost on us that people in poverty are the most dependent on natural ecosystems, as well as the most immediately and seriously affected by environmental degradation
- Growth narrows down democracy: The pursuit of growth has led to an uncomfortably close alliance between the State and the market, between government and the entrepreneurial class. As a result, policy-making has been systematically skewed in favour of the most powerful corporations. Private actors that have now increased their ability to distort even democratic processes.
Our fixation on economic growth is exhausting the planet and its people. For all the reasons listed above, it is rapidly losing its appeal as a solution to eradicating poverty.
We simply cannot continue as we have been.
Over the next three years I will use all the tools at my disposal – from meeting with people in poverty to convening with governments, preparing UN reports to forging alliances with civil society – to co-design and champion a new “post-growth” approach to combatting poverty. One that aligns with the principles of a human rights economy and breaks free from the current orthodoxy that economic growth is the answer to poverty eradication.
Happily, the more I explore this area, the more I uncover a growing movement seeking to understand how to move beyond growth. And much of what is being discussed aligns with the work I’ll continue to carry out around eradicating poverty within planetary boundaries, establishing a Global Fund for Social Protection, banning povertyism, and ensuring decent work and the take-up of social protection benefits.