History tells us coronavirus pandemic could lead to global reduction in poverty, Oxford academic says

Exclusive: Governments must be ‘judicious’ when allocating resources or risk ‘unprecedented increase’, Professor Sabina Alkire warns

Andy Gregory
Friday 29 May 2020 15:19 BST
A man prepares soup for the hungry in Gaza during the pandemic
A man prepares soup for the hungry in Gaza during the pandemic (AFP/Getty)

The response to coronavirus could result in a “historic reduction” of global poverty, according to a pioneering Oxford academic at the forefront of efforts to measure inequality.

While the pandemic disproportionately threatens the world’s poorest and poses the risk of an “unprecedented increase” in poverty, Professor Sabina Alkire believes that history shows the crisis also offers the chance to ultimately pull millions out of deprivation.

She urged governments to be “strategically pro-poor” with their investments as they strive to stimulate recession-hit economies, and described her hopes that the pandemic could spark unprecedented innovation and collaboration.

“It’s not rocket science ... we know what to do and it’s not that expensive,” she said of efforts to provide electricity, sanitation or nutrition to the hundreds of millions of people currently going without.

“Governments will need to have a balanced portfolio of responses – they can’t just focus on the poor by any means, but to have a greater investment there than has been the case in the past could have a really, completely long-term effect.”

As director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, Prof Alkire has, alongside Professor James Foster, changed the way that poverty is defined around the world – co-developing a measurement which takes into account a variety of living standards as opposed to the purely fiscal.

More than 50 governments have used the resulting data, often to shape policy and decide budgets. According to Prof Alkire, countries have found that “even during times of fiscal constraints, there’s an acceleration in poverty reduction”.

“Poverty is about clustered disadvantages that people face together – very similar to the idea of comorbidities in Covid-19,” Prof Alkire told The Independent, shortly before receiving Tel Aviv University’s Boris Mints Institute Prize for her work.​

“Poor people carry more of these around at the same time, and so the impact of Covid-19 on them is likely to be very much harsher. Poverty is likely to rise for the first time in a long time.”

According to her team’s UN-backed annual report, the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), there were 1.3 billion people living in poverty in 2019.

In April, the World Food Programme also warned the pandemic may cause “famines of biblical proportions”, devastating livelihoods and food security, especially in already fragile contexts.

“But because that is a threat, it doesn’t mean that necessarily has to happen,” Prof Alkire said.

“There are examples from history where a really concerted set of actions have been successful in averting the potential rise in poverty, and actually turn it the other way, into a historic reduction of poverty.”

Firstly, she referred to economist Amartya Sen’s observations that during the Second World War, life expectancy in the UK rose far more quickly than in the previous decade – a benefit he attributed largely to the emergency food-rationing systems put in place during the war.

“During a very difficult time of crisis and of shortage, the policies that were put in place were equitable, and actually that made sort of historic change that persists,” she said.

Prof Alkire also pointed to her own team’s research for the 2020 MPI, due in July, which she said shows that, despite battling the Ebola crisis and an influx of Aids, Sierra Leone was the fastest of more than 70 countries to reduce multidimensional poverty.

“And there were many mistakes – nothing is perfect in this world,” Prof Alkire said. “But actually, there were strong investments in health and nutrition, [and a rise] in school attendance. And so, we can see that it did lead to a positive effect.”

She added: “We have to be preparing now for the post-emergency response, and doing so in a way that will continue and sustain a historic reduction in poverty during it.

“There is a lot of political space, there are a lot of resources that need to be invested to restart the economy, and if they are invested judiciously then we would feel the positive effect for some time to come.”

However, she warned that if these post-crisis investments instead favour large corporations and articulated interests, “then inequality will return with a vengeance or broaden”.

Furthermore, due to the impact on health care systems and communities, particularly in developing countries, new resources will be needed just to maintain the same level of services available pre-crisis.

“If that’s not done, then there is a big danger of a step back,” she said. “I think that’s what all of the people who work on poverty from different angles are saying, is that we see that there’s a delicacy, and that there’s a danger of an unprecedented increase.”

Prof Alkire also suggested that, for researchers, the pandemic could either bring the poorest parts of the world into sharper focus, or could lead to huge blind spots – which she fears could tangibly affect the outcome for millions of people.

Lockdowns and fears of spreading the virus have put a halt to door-to-door data collecting in many countries – despite the health crisis bringing a greater need to monitor the effects felt by communities.

Instead, efforts are increasingly being channelled into collecting data over the phone, forcing researchers to streamline the ways in which they gather information, and find better ways to ensure privacy is upheld.

While there are “very practical challenges”, Prof Alkire believes the potential developments in data gathering are exemplary of how the crisis could lead to a burst of innovation.

Sabina Alkire received the Boris Mints Institute Prize for her work on reducing poverty
Sabina Alkire received the Boris Mints Institute Prize for her work on reducing poverty (Tel Aviv University)

“It really may create a very positive new channel of activity in terms of data-gathering,” she said. “The rhythm of data is just so motivating for policy-makers because they can celebrate success within their term of office – they can see things happen and then respond in a much more timely manner.

“It’s hard for me to overemphasise the importance of data. I hope that this will be an area of investment and creativity, so we won’t have a data desert, because that would not be good for the poor.”

Drawing from their 2019 report in lieu of readily available new statistics, Prof Alkire and her team have estimated that some 3.6 billion people are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 as a result of either lacking access to clean drinking water, sufficient food, or clean cooking fuel – leaving them with alternatives such as wood, dung or charcoal, which create air pollution that exacerbates the virus.

“We found that even just looking at those three indicators, there’s huge variation within countries and across countries in the number of people who experience one, two or all three at the same time,” she said, adding that the non-health effects of the pandemic and ensuing recession ​“both in terms of impoverishment and also very sadly, fatality, could be very strong”.

“For that reason, we’re trying to work with many governments, reach out to them and prevent this from having a negative or alarming increase in poverty,” Prof Alkire said. “Because if, if you don’t do that, I think it will.”

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