Poverty – however you choose to define it – has long been a part of the human experience, as have efforts to eradicate it. Just over a week ago, many of us joined the United Nations in marking the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (on Monday 17 October), a day which can be traced back to 1987. Yet efforts to eradicate poverty far out-date this. For as long as there has been poverty and inequality in society, it’s probably a given that there have been people trying to tackle it. Within RESULTS UK, poverty eradication has been at the forefront of our advocacy since we were founded in 1986.  

To some extent, humans have been incredibly successful in eradicating poverty over the last few centuries. If you compare life for most people in your generation to four generations ago, it’s probably a fairly positive picture. And if this imaginative situation is not a thorough enough measure, World Bank data suggests that extreme poverty has declined over the last 25 years. However, that trend has changed since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, conflict, climate change and rising inflation. On a global level, it is estimated that between 75 million and 95 million additional people could be living in extreme poverty in 2022 compared to estimates before the pandemic. Within the UK, it is estimated that the number of people living in absolute poverty will rise to 14 million in 2023-24, a 17-21% rise, with child poverty rates set to reach levels not experienced since the 1990s. Given the sheer amount of wealth and technological advances in the world, it is a taint on humanity that the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty has a reason to exist in this decade. 

Whilst absolute poverty and extreme poverty are measured differently, and RESULTS UK (along with almost every organisation whose mission is poverty eradication) have different ways of defining poverty, there is one thing that unites all definitions and explanations – people. People: their experiences, their lives, their welfare and wellbeing, and opportunities. A quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi but thought to originate from Pearl Buck is “A civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members”. This was also echoed in a speech made by Ambassador Matthew Rycroft of the UK Mission to the UN in 2015 at the Security Council Open Debate on Children and Armed Conflict “How a society treats its most vulnerable – whether children, the infirm or the elderly – is always the measure of its humanity.” So rather than think of poverty as a classifiable noun, let’s take a step back to consider poverty as a result of the relationships and treatment between humans. 

The terms ‘weak’ and ‘vulnerable’ are used here with care, as tarnishing people with a brush laden with pity and power-imbalance is problematic. But we could consider ‘vulnerable’ to mean members of civilisation who are: more likely to die from preventable diseases due to a lack of access to vaccines; more likely to lack basic needs due to living in areas affected by conflict; more likely to suffer from health conditions due to inadequate housing; and more likely to have poor nutrition due to a lack of income. These are just some examples. In any of these -and many other-  iterations of how the term ‘vulnerable’ could be understood, the UK’s treatment of vulnerable people is not currently rooted in humanity. 

If we consider civilization as the whole of humanity – not an outrageous scenario given the interconnected and globalised world we live in – the current UK Government’s treatment of the most vulnerable does not measure highly. In fact, the International Development Strategy, a 32 page document released by the FCDO in 2022, mentions the word ‘vulnerable’ once (in a photo caption), ‘poorest’ once and ‘poverty’ 9 times. Yet ‘money’ was mentioned 6 times, ‘investment’ 47 times and ‘trade’ 27 times. You could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the strategy is just some words on paper, and that the UK’s treatment of the most vulnerable in civilization is indeed showered with compassion. Yet, when looking at the spending of the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget over the past couple of years, the figures simply don’t fare favourably. The Government slashed the ODA budget by a third in 2021, equating to approximately £4.2 billion. Analysis by the ONE campaign suggests that this cut caused 7.1 million children to lose out on an education and 11.6 million children, girls and women to lose out on nutrition support. And funding and support to people in Yemen, who face one of the largest humanitarian crises, was drastically cut. The National Audit Office later found the cuts lacked transparency and sufficient consideration of impact.

But perhaps viewing civilisation as the whole of humanity is a little too macro, and we should zoom in on how the UK Government treats vulnerable members of society in the UK itself. Within British society and civilization on the islands that make up one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, the outlook is equally bleak. Currently, it is estimated that around 14.5 million people are living in poverty in the UK, with analysis by the Resolution Foundation predicting that this will increase by 1.3 million by 2023, including 500,000 children. And whether everyone living in poverty gets the support they need is another question. For example, it is estimated that 800,000 children living in poverty do not qualify for free school meal vouchers and may go hungry this winter. Whilst poverty rates seemed to fall at the beginning of the pandemic, partly due to a £20 per week Universal Credit uplift, this trajectory didn’t last long. The uplift was withdrawn and now, amidst a cost of living crisis, sky-rocketing energy prices and inflation rates, it is unclear what the Government’s decision on Universal Credit, and other financial support, will be in the new budget. The lack of certainty on a range of financial decisions that have potential to lift people out of poverty, or plunge more into poverty, suggests tackling poverty simply isn’t a priority.

It seems the UK Government didn’t get the memo about International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Efforts to eradicate poverty do not seem to be high on the political agenda and are slipping down the priority list. Whilst the experiences faced by people living in different cities, regions, countries and continents differ, poverty is poverty. It is a human experience that humans create and perpetuate. In a world with plenty of resources and financial wealth, we should judge ourselves on how we treat the most vulnerable in our civilization – both globally and nationally. We’ve seen that poverty levels – using various definitions – can reduce, and have done over many years. The current level of the UK’s efforts will not take us closer to eradicating poverty especially if the current trajectory of an increase in poverty levels rings true. We can hope that the UK Government makes a renewed effort to tackle poverty levels in the new budget, due on 17 November, but the lack of political will to tackle poverty in current strategies is evident. Central to RESULTS UK’s advocacy is the belief that public and political will can bring an end to poverty. When there is a lack of political will to end poverty, it is all the more important that campaigners keep showing that there is public will. Together, we need to keep advocating until there is no need for the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty to exist.