In efforts to eradicate poverty, we all depend on each other
The following Perspective is adapted from a speech delivered by Daniel Perell, in his capacity as Chairperson of the NGO Committee for Social Development, at the opening session of the 55th UN Commission for Social Development on 1 February 2017.
Excellencies, ladies and gentleman:
Why are we here today? Why is the Commission considering “strategies for the eradication of poverty”? Why did Agenda 2030 identify poverty as “the greatest global challenge facing the world today?”
Conditions of want and inequality have clear societal repercussions – social fragmentation, civil unrest, and so on.
But I suggest that the main reason is that we live in an interconnected world where our moral horizon is broadening, leading to a new sense of urgency. Poverty is incompatible with our understanding of what it means to be a human being, yet our systems and structures are unable to keep apace with these changes.
For most of recorded history, much of humanity lived not far removed from hand-to-mouth conditions of survival and subsistence, individuals and communities alike.
The great moral, ethical, and religious systems have always urged care for the hungry and the destitute. Yet eradication of poverty was virtually unthinkable, as limited material resources were the lot of multitudes.
Scientific and technological progress has allowed humanity to multiply many-fold the resources at its disposal, permitting a level of global prosperity undreamt of in past generations.
And while it is sometimes hard to see in the turmoil today, this material progress has been accompanied by moral and ethical advances that are equally striking.
Consider, for example, that it is now unacceptable that a mother should be prevented from rearing her infant because economic conditions force her to return to work within days of birth.
It is insupportable that those who spent a lifetime contributing to society should face want and deprivation in their golden years.
And it is taboo to build any physical structure that is inaccessible to a person with a disability.
Many still face such conditions, of course. But the question today is not whether something should be done, but what should be done.
How can broad-based and equitable prosperity be most effectively, efficiently, and lastingly established around the globe?
Toward this end, the NGO Committee for Social Development highlights social protection as a promising strategy for pursuing the eradication of poverty. And you should have received the Civil Society Declaration.
Social protection, including the idea of floors, has emerged as a fundamental tool for alleviating poverty, reducing inequalities, and building socially inclusive societies.
In this regard, many civil society organizations at the Commission stand ready to support efforts to use social protection systems to help bring about the world we want – including through the adoption of a resolution on this issue at a future Commission.
But beyond addressing the symptoms of injustices – such as poverty – social protection offers a means of providing all members of society with the tools needed to contribute to the meaningful development of their communities – to address the true causes.
A great deal of time in multilateral spaces is dedicated to matters of text and policy. This is important. But absent the human element, no effort will be either sustainable or transformative.
This is one of the great strengths of civil society. It can bring the human face, heart and experience into the room. This is a role the importance of which should not be overlooked.
It is this very humanity that is the source of our highest honor. It is critical to ensuring that the good policies we work so hard to create have the beneficial impacts we intend.
If the goals we envision are to be achieved, we will have to find ways to integrate the human and the technical, to ensure that our efforts reflect both efficiency and compassion.
Finally, this leads to questions of our responsibilities and relationships as human beings, citizens and institutions, particularly as partners in a shared endeavor like Agenda 2030.
For example, we need to think about the relationship between independence and interdependence – the particular and the universal.
Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Climate agreement, the New Urban Agenda, and other global agreements have consciously been created within a human rights framework to be universal in nature.
Reflecting the reality of our shared global destiny, they champion an interdependence that also respects uniqueness – a web of relationships in which all nations and peoples are ultimately dependent on one another.
Such an approach calls for a reframing of the thinking that has long held a privileged position in the discourse.
Development efforts have historically been based on unspoken assumptions of independence – a tacit sense that some nations or groups already have what they need, and that their efforts to assist others are an expression of benevolence or charity.
To embrace the implications of a universal agenda is to acknowledge that no segment of society already has what is needed to bring about the world we collectively desire for ourselves and our children.
Whether wealthy or poor, rural or urban, a doctorate or illiterate, we all depend on each other and we all have much to learn about a functioning society.
This might be challenging to some, and runs counter to certain ideologies.
But interdependence, as expressed through relationships of mutual support and assistance, will increasingly be seen as the source of our greatest strength.
The NGO Committee on Social Development is this year emphasizing social protection as a key strategy to eradicate poverty – or, more accurately, to treat one of the major symptoms of an ailing society.
However, we must all recognize – regardless of our affiliations – that a far more profound cure will be needed.
This starts with recognizing the interdependence of all constituent parts, from individuals to nations to the international community.
Finally, it will require an objective interrogation of deeply held assumptions about the nature and ultimate aims of development.
Civil society stands ready to join in this journey and we hope that the Commission and its constituent Member States continue to create spaces for these shared endeavors.
-- Daniel Perell is a representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations