Covid-19 exposes 'distorted picture' of global poverty gains, UN envoy says

Outgoing extreme poverty rapporteur Philip Alston says US$1.90 per day measure has led to complacency.

Philip Alston, former special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights UN
Philip Alston, at the time the UN's special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, attends a news conference in Beijing, China on August 23, 2016. Image: Reuters/Jason Lee

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed complacency and “misplaced triumphalism” by international aid organisations that have taken credit for progress on eradicating extreme poverty, a top United Nations rights official said.

Global entities have failed to end severe hardship around the world, and Covid-19 will plunge even more people into dire economic straits, said Philip Alston, the outgoing UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

“Even before Covid-19, we squandered a decade in the fight against poverty, with misplaced triumphalism blocking the very reforms that could have prevented the worst impacts of the pandemic,” he said in a statement accompanying his final report to the UN Human Rights Council.

“The international community’s abysmal record on tackling poverty, inequality and disregard for human life far precede this pandemic,” he added.

Covid-19 has exposed how vulnerable poor people are, unable to practice safety measures like staying home and forced to risk getting sick because they need to keep working, said the report, which was to be presented to the Council on Tuesday.

“When you look at what Covid-19 has done, which has really been just to pull the Band-Aid off the poverty wounds, we see all too clearly that in fact it was very far from being eliminated,” Alston told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview ahead of the presentation.

He pointed to a 2018 World Bank document declaring “remarkable and unprecedented progress” in reducing extreme poverty.

It said 10 per cent of the world’s population, some 736 million people, were living in extreme poverty in 2015, compared with nearly 2 billion people or 36 per cent in 1990.

When you look at what Covid-19 has done, which has really been just to pull the Band-Aid off the poverty wounds, we see all too clearly that in fact it was very far from being eliminated.

Philip Alston, outgoing special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, United Nations

The report used the World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty as living on $1.90 a day or less.

A similar assessment of a drop in extreme poverty to about 11 per cent of the population from 35 per cent was made in a 2017 report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

‘Sleepwalking towards failure’ 

But Alston, a professor at New York University School of Law, said a poverty line of $1.90 a day “provides a distorted picture.”

“That in turn made people complacent,” he said. “$1.90 a day is really miserable subsistence and by no means amounts to eradicating poverty.”

More accurate measures show only a slight decline in extreme poverty over the last 30 years, he said.

A separate report published in June by UNU-WIDER, part of the United Nations University, said economic fallout from the pandemic could swell the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day to as many as 1.12 billion.

Alston, who was appointed UN special rapporteur six years ago, also criticised the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) approved in 2015 by UN member states to end poverty, inequality and other global woes by 2030.

The global goals rely on economic growth and shared prosperity to solve problems, rather than seeking structural solutions such as wealth redistribution or a taxation system that does not encourage tax avoidance, he said.

“The UN and its member states are sleepwalking towards failure,” he said in the statement.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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