Extracting the roots of poverty


Despite the fight to eradicate poverty being a daily battle, a special day –17 October, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty–has been set aside to highlight the plight of many living below the breadline and show what solutions have been implemented to help alleviate poverty across the globe. It’s also a chance for people to put forward fresh ideas.

Often we assume that poverty is a result of people not working hard enough or not being resourceful. This stereotyping is an indication of the extent to which we are misinformed – multiple factors affect economic empowerment in society.

The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty dates back to 17 October 1987 when masses gathered in Paris to highlight the plight of people affected by poverty, hunger and violence. The gathering took place at the site where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948. Article 25 of the declaration states in part that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services”. After a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1992, 17 October was declared the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

It is not enough to highlight poverty and publish the statistics of people living below the poverty line, policymakers, stakeholders and other people in positions of power need to have an action plan for fighting against poverty and destitution. On this special day, leaders get to present the strategies they have come up with to help the poor and a platform is afforded to the people living in poverty to speak about their circumstances and voice their needs.

In 2015 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution known as Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In it they state the following: “This Agenda is a plan of action for people, the planet and prosperity. It also seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom. We recognise that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. All countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, will implement this plan. We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want, and to heal and secure our planet.”

The United Nations went on to say: “We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path. As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets which we are announcing today demonstrate the scale and ambition of this new universal Agenda. They seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and complete what they did not achieve. They seek to realise the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental. The Goals and targets will stimulate action over the next 15 years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet.”

Back home in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa broke down the government’s strategy for alleviating poverty in his June 2019 State of the Nation Address (SONA). His action plan is categorised into the following areas of concern: national minimum wage, housing, transport, health and persons with disabilities. Researchers have found that one of the main factors behind poverty in South Africa is racial inequality, an aftereffect of the apartheid era.

President Ramaphosa’s objective is to alleviate poverty within the next 10 years. In his address he said, “Our determination that within the next decade no person in South Africa will go hungry is fundamental to our effort to eradicate poverty and reduce inequality. We must strengthen the social wage and reduce the cost of living.” Several structures have been put in place to improve the standards of living and redistribute wealth in order to create a more equitable society. The South African government established a system of social grants as a way of taking direct action in alleviating poverty. A large portion of the country’s well-established social-welfare system’s social spending goes towards social grants. A staggering 17 million social grants are paid monthly, a clear indication that the government is working hard to assist the underprivileged.

Sections 24 to 29 of the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution – which recognise the socio-economic rights of citizens, including the right to social security – ensure social grants are administered by the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA). SASSA is mandated by the South African Social Security Agency Act of 2004 and it ensures the provision of comprehensive social-security services against vulnerability and poverty within the constitutional legislative framework.

The Social Assistance Act of 2004 provides the legal framework regulating the administration of seven social grants. Grants were created for people who are vulnerable to poverty and in need of the state’s support. The grants available include the child support grant, older person grant, disability grant, grant-in-aid, care dependency grant, war veterans grant and foster child grant. There is also a Social Relief of Distress grant, which provides immediate temporary assistance to people in dire need of financial support and it’s awarded in the form of vouchers, food parcels or money for a period of three months.

When it comes to poverty and inequality, the most affected citizens are low-income earners. Social grants and the national minimum wage were designed to create a balance in this very unequal society. The National Minimum Wage Act protects the poor who are currently employed.

In his address, President Ramaphosa spoke about housing as well. He said, “Many South Africans still need land to build homes and earn livelihoods. In the next five years, we will accelerate the provision of well-located housing and land to poor South Africans.” He added that government is committed to building human settlements in areas that specifically bring economic opportunities and services to people in need. In the next five years, the Human Development Agency is going to construct 500 000 housing units. This establishment of human settlements will address the housing backlog while boosting the economy through creating employment opportunities for those who specialise in housing in both the public and private sectors.

The government also intends to expand the public works programme, with the intention of allocating service stands to households, allowing them to build their own houses. They will have the option to choose whether to do it individually or through community-led cooperatives. The state has already identified state-owned land it intends to redistribute for the purpose of addressing human-settlement needs in urban and peri-urban areas.

Another crucial challenge we face as a nation is the high cost of commuting, which the president addressed, saying, “We must improve the affordability, safety and integration of commuter transport for low-income households.” He expounded on the high cost of commuting and the long periods of time people spend waiting for public transport. He feels poor public transport is one of the biggest contributors to the high rates of poverty in South Africa because, while people can get jobs, if the money they make is mostly spent on transport commuting to and from work, working becomes pointless. Government is putting together a safe, integrated and reliable transport system that will play a great role in developing the economy.

The government’s first step in ensuring it achieves this goal was addressing the problem the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) is facing. It committed to providing safe, reliable passenger rail services that will benefit commuters and the economy by investing more than R170 billion in PRASA. As part of PRASA’s Fleet Renewal Programme, more than 7 000 new trains will be manufactured over a 20-year period, that’s almost 30 a month.

Another area of concern is health, which is crucial when talking about quality of life. The president addressed this saying: “To improve the quality of life of South Africans, to reduce poverty in all dimensions and to strengthen our economy, we will attend to the health of our people.” The government has a strategy in place to institute National Health Insurance (NHI) and the plan to implement it is now at an advanced stage.

One of the central issues the plan addresses is a way to accelerate the quality of care initiatives in public facilities, particularly focusing on building human-resource capacity. This will be done by establishing the NHI Fund structure and the cost of the Fund’s administration. Government is finalising the Presidential Health Summit Compact, which is intended on mobilising stakeholders with the intention of addressing the crisis in clinics and hospitals. Then there is the 90-90-90: Treatment for All initiative by the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) to help eradicate the AIDS epidemic. The target is:

  • By 2020, 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status.
  • By 2020, 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy.
  • By 2020, 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression.

This has been incorporated into South Africa’s National Strategic Plan, which seeks to end HIV, one of the main public-health threats in our country. This will be achieved by increasing the number of people on treatment by at least another 2 million by December 2020.

President Ramaphosa is also committed to empowering people living with disabilities. “If we are to successfully address the challenge of poverty across society, we need to provide skills and create economic opportunities for persons with disabilities,” he says.

As we observe this year’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, it is clear that government is at war— there’s a lot of work yet to be done.

However, it’s not the role of government alone to end poverty. Industry and communities need to get involved as well and use all the resources at their disposal to find solutions that will empower poor people to escape the scourge of poverty and claim their human right to a decent standard of living.

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