COVID-19: UN poverty expert says social protection measures “full of holes”, urges global rethink

Professor Olivier De Schutter (Belgium) was appointed the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights by the Human Rights Council at its 43rd session, in March 2020. A Professor of Law at UCLouvain and at SciencesPo (Paris), Mr. De Schutter was the Special Rapporteur on the right to food from 2008 to 2014, and a member of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights between 2015 and 2020. Prior to those appointments, he was Secretary-General of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

GENEVA (11 September 2020) – The UN’s independent expert on extreme poverty said in a report published today that while governments have adopted more than 1,400 social protection measures since the outbreak of COVID-19 they were largely insufficient, and warned the worst impacts on poverty were yet to come.

“The social safety nets put into place are full of holes,” said Olivier De Schutter, calling on world leaders at the UN General Assembly in New York to strengthen measures to help the poor. “These current measures are generally short-term, the funding is insufficient, and many people will inevitably fall between the cracks.” 

The economic downturn resulting from the pandemic is unprecedented in times of peace since the Great Depression, he said, adding another 176 million people could fall into poverty when using a poverty baseline of 3.20 USD/day. This is equivalent to an increase in the poverty rate of 2.3 percentage points compared to a no-COVID-19 scenario.

World Bank data covering 113 countries show that US$589bn have been pledged for social protection, representing about 0.4 percent of the world’s GDP. However, the expert’s report says those initiatives will fail to prevent people falling into poverty. Many of the poorest people are excluded from the social protection schemes that are meant to support them.

“Many schemes require forms to be completed online and exclude large groups of the population who have no internet access or who have only weak digital literacy,” De Schutter said.

“Some schemes impose conditions impossible to fulfil for people in precarious forms of employment or without a permanent address. Migrants, especially undocumented migrants, often are not covered. And although some schemes have been designed to cover workers in the informal sector and in precarious forms of employment, many do not.”

There are 1.6 billion informal workers and 0.4 billion precarious workers worldwide, representing 61 percent of the global workforce.

De Schutter said most of the programmes were now being phased out, or can only be renewed through parliamentary processes with uncertain outcomes. “Families in poverty have by now used up whatever reserves they had, and sold their assets,” he said. “The worst impacts of the crisis on poverty are still to come.” 

Even where programs are still in place, the allowances often are grossly insufficient to guarantee a decent standard of living.

The independent expert called upon world leaders to seize the moment, by calling for the establishment of strong social protection floors guided by human rights principles, to make them more effective in eradicating poverty and in reducing inequalities.

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