Message from James Gustave Speth
Administrator, United Nations Development Programme
International Day for the Eradication of Poverty
New York, 17 October 1996

Today marks the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. On this day, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) re-dedicates itself to a decade-long, global effort to replace hunger, helplessness and despair with opportunity, hope and the promise of a better future. Poverty places an intolerable burden on the human spirit. We cannot accept that it will always be with us. The modern world has the resources, the know-how and the expertise to relegate poverty to the pages of history. That is why UNDP, with the enthusiastic backing of our Executive Board, has made the fight against world poverty its central and overriding priority. UNDP now spends nearly 90 per cent of its core resources in countries with 90 per cent of the world's poorest people. We have committed the full force of all our energies to the gravest human challenge of our time--an effort which will also galvanize and energize the various efforts of the United Nations around a great and just cause. 

Picture a moment what being poor really means--beyond the vast numbers of nameless, faceless people who many think live only in faraway places. Poverty is a hungry and thirsty child who cannot
understand why there is no food and no water. Poverty is an elderly woman with no heat in winter, a woman with a lifetime of hard work behind her and only a damp chill as her reward. Poverty is a
fisherman whose waters--and livelihood--have been spoiled by pollution through no fault of his own. But being poor is more than a lack of food, shelter and livelihoods. Poverty means marginalization--the exclusion of millions of people in countries, rich and poor, from the benefits of progress. Poverty also means polarization--the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, both between countries and within countries.

Inequities breed joblessness and hopelessness, anger and despair--and all too often violence and conflict. The world must make a place for everyone to share in its bounty. And the poor need more control over the forces shaping their lives. They need the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty and social exclusion and enter a world of equity and justice.

The income gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the world's people has not been narrowing in the past 30 years. It has, in fact, doubled. Each day, 68,000 people join the ranks of the
poor--families living on less than one dollar a day. Let us ask ourselves what the future could possibly hold for the children in these families.

The goal to eradicate extreme poverty is not some lofty idealism when we see how many industrial countries over the course of this century have done just that. In this sense, conquering poverty is
not just a moral imperative but a feasible objective.

With the spirit of the 1995 Copenhagen World Summit on Social Development as our guide and inspiration, UNDP is helping to forge a world partnership geared to replacing poverty with equity. We
have set our goals to provide sustainable livelihoods, to advance the well-being of women and to regenerate the environment.

UNDP offices throughout the world are sponsoring and organizing events to observe the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The activities, which take place during the week of 17-24 October, are designed to encourage and assist governments and their people to develop national poverty eradication strategies as well as plans of actions which are comprehensive, participatory and realistic.

Within this framework, UNDP is working with governments to help them identify the nature and scope of poverty in their respective countries. We are supporting initiatives that provide equitable access to assets including skills, credit, jobs and sustainable livelihoods, land and environmental resources, linkages to national and international markets and information systems, citizenship rights and legal rights for women and minorities.

The real potential of the next century will not be found in stocks or technology or minerals. The real potential of the future will be found in the three billion people now living in poverty who collectively represent the greatest potential for growth and opportunity the world has ever seen.

Unless we address the problems of poverty now, none of the great goals the international community has set--peace, stability, human rights for all, preservation of the environment--are achievable in
a world where one half of the people find themselves shut out of opportunity and the benefits of a global society.

Poverty is the great denier. It denies comfort, dignity, freedom, participation. Today we deny the great denier its handiwork. I call upon every individual who cares about justice and human dignity to join the global campaign to eradicate poverty. We have the know-how. We have the resources. Today, we need the commitment.



Choices is published four times a year by the Division of Public Affairs, United Nations Development Programme, One United Nations ; Plaza, New York, New York 10017, USA, Tel: (212) 906-5315, Fax: (212) 906-5364, E-mail: 

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 1996 the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty. UNDP Administrator James Gustave Speth has adopted poverty eradication as the organization's "job number one." But what does poverty really mean?

When CHOICES asked that question of people around the world, their answers were often startling in their eloquence and simplicity. They were also as varied as societies themselves. In many instances, poverty was defined as a scourge that denies people a minimum level of income and the basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing and shelter. But it also went much deeper than that. One metaphor for poverty that appeared more than once was that of a dark hole, from which people were unable to emerge. For indigenous peoples, it meant destruction of nature, which for them represents wealth. For still others, it meant the loss of freedom, dignity and basic human rights. Mahatma Gandhi was said to have described poverty as "the worst form of violence."

On 17 October, the day set aside to mark the international year, people around the globe will be launching national campaigns to fight poverty in all of its forms. As a point of departure, CHOICES
is pleased to present the following essay -- a collection of voices from around the globe.


"I have seen poverty all over the world -- villages, suburbs and cities, at home and abroad. I've seen babies with swollen bellies, mothers who can't obtain health care for a sick child, girls who are denied the right to attend school and families who are forced to live on top of disease-laden sewage canals because they lack the political clout to bring about change on their own behalf. Poverty can mean that a child with promise as a pianist will never feel the keys under her hand and that a father who struggles to earn a living will never make enough to send a deserving child to high school or college. It can mean that a community fighting to survive will not be able to organize itself to confront its social or economic problems.

"We can only overcome the scourge of poverty if, as a global family of nations, we commit to investing in the world's greatest resource: our people. Giving all men, women and children the tools of opportunity -- education, health care, employment, legal rights and political freedoms -- does not just serve humanitarian purposes. It is the key to economic, social and political progress. When individuals flourish, families flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations will flourish as well." -- Hillary Rodham Clinton, First Lady of the USA

"Poverty is the denial of all human rights. It is not created by the poor. It is created and sustained by the 'system' we have built around us." -- Muhammad Yunus, Managing Director, Grameen Bank,

"Poverty means you live in huts with grass thatched roofs. The poor carry water in clay pots rather than in modern but expensive jerrycans. Even pots used for cooking are homemade. The poor receive from the rich and have to eat cassava." -- Jackline Namutosi, age 8, Kampala, Uganda

"Wealth is a blanket we wear (the land). Poverty is to have that blanket taken away." -- John Hardbattle, founder, First Peoples of the Kalahari, Botswana

"Poverty to me is the situation of the least developed countries. The state of these countries is the ultimate test of the world's social and economic health." -- Kari Nordheim-Larsen, Minister of Development Cooperation, Norway

"Poverty means ill-health, which prevents you from working." -- Zahida, market vendor, Male, Maldives

"I am cooking now and I don't know when next I'll cook a proper meal and when I'll be able to live in a proper place; that is poverty. I am squatting because landlords would not accept me with eight children. It is depressing and frustrating." -- Shirley Jupiter, single mother of eight, Ruimveldt squatters settlement, Georgetown, Guyana

"Poverty ... means powerlessness and low status. It means a culture of silence. It means bearing children on the street. It means the lack of privacy, dignity and any kind of security." -- Mahila Milan
(a women's collective of pavement dwellers), Bombay, India

"Poverty to me is being enslaved to seeking a crumb of bread instead of freedom to love and enjoy life." -- Jalal Baayo, dentist, Tripoli, Libya

"Poverty, in the end, is a state of dispossession and deprivation in which people are not only deprived of their income, but also of opportunity, empowerment and, most important, dignity." -- James Gustave Speth, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

"Poverty may be defined as a state of physical, spiritual or financial deprivation, preventing people from attaining their full potential and realizing their self-fulfilment." -- Navinchandra Ramgoolam, Prime Minister of the Republic of Mauritius

"Poverty is a cancer that gnaws at the fabric of society and threatens peace on a worldwide scale." -- Jean-Bertrand Aristide, former President of Haiti

"Poverty means remaining uneducated, working harder, having a low economic status and a child every year." -- Hira Kumari Maharjan, age 40, housewife and volunteer social worker, Nepal

"Poverty means never having quite enough to eat." -- Kevin McDonald, panhandler, New York City

"Poverty is crisis. Beans at 35 lempiras, that alone empties the account. Giving a child half an egg because of how much they cost -- that, too, is poverty, and then they don't even let us work." -- María Antonia Padilla, fruit seller and single mother with three dependent children, Tegucigalpa, Honduras

"Watching my mother struggle on little or nothing to provide her children with a decent standard of living." -- Anonymous student, age 13, Barbados

"An individual living in a state of poverty is unable to provide for his or her most basic necessities: food, shelter and clothing. The inherent potential of a human being never gets an opportunity to emerge as life becomes a constant struggle for survival." -- Arzu Rana Deuba, First Lady of Nepal

"To me real poverty is a poor woman. If she who bears the brunt of poverty becomes poor, then humankind is finished. I say this because the problems of poverty are always dumped on women. They usually do a good job anyway, so humankind survives." -- Baboucar Gaye, journalist, the Gambia

"Poverty is a woman sending her children out to beg in traffic rather than to school because otherwise there will be nothing to eat. The mother knows she is repeating a cycle that trapped her, but there is no way out that she can see." -- Alicia Gentolia, urban social worker, Philippines

"Poverty is not realizing your own intrinsic wealth." -- Murray Hochman, artist, New York City

"Poverty is being stuck in a deep hole, being able to see the light and people freely walking around, but not having the voice to shout for help or a ladder to climb out." -- Abdulrazak Raubi, systems analyst, Zueitina Oil Company, Tripoli, Libya

"Poverty is the situation of someone who has no support and no one they can count on for the future." -- Anonymous, Kayesi, Mali

"Poverty means that God forgives our thefts." -- Tony, homeless "street kid," age 10, Angola

"Poverty to me is the impossibility of living in your own home. It is life in a refugee camp and the lack of opportunity for my children to get a proper education." -- Vugar Ibrahimov, age 42, refugee from Azerbaijan

"Poverty is having to take from the rich to be able to eat." -- John Rodriguez, homeless "street kid," age 12, Bogotá, Colombia

"Poverty is what forced me to leave school and work in the central market."--Anonymous, age 15, Bahrain

"Poverty expands whenever society sinfully undermines the human right to realize oneself spiritually, socially and economically." -- Halfdan Mahler, MD, Director-General Emeritus, World Health Organization

"If I have food, music and brandy, there is no poverty for me." -- Anonymous Gypsy, Bulgaria

"Poverty is the squatter mother whose hut has been torn down by the government for reasons she cannot understand. That night she sits amid the ruins of her home, listening to her children coughing in the dark. She doesn't know what will happen the next day, but she fears it will be worse than what happened that day." -- Dennis Murphy, Coordinator, Urban Poor Associates, the Philippines

"For me poverty is a kind of deprivation from something which every human being has a natural right to have... the poverty of the lonely, the unloved, the outcast -- the unwanted -- who are hungry not only for bread but for love. I think the poorest of the poor are those who are not yet touched -- rather, those who have not allowed themselves to be touched -- by God's love...." -- Mother Teresa, Calcutta, India

"Poverty means waking up without perspective. It is a state in which you feel degraded, and as a result, rejected by society. Poverty robs you of your aspirations for the future." -- Zelda Alfred, Representative of Tobago's Association of NGOs, Trinidad and Tobago

"Poverty is lack of opportunity, lack of freedom. It is hunger and malnutrition, disease and lack of basic social services. It is a policy failure that degrades people -- those who suffer it, and those who tolerate it. It is an equity gap between countries and within countries. Poverty is still the gravest insult to human dignity. Poverty is the scar on humanity's face." -- Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway

"Poverty to me means working for more than 18 hours per day, but still not earning enough to feed myself, my wife and two children." -- Rudeen Kean, age 28, cyclo driver, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

"Poverty is the destruction of nature: the forest, land, animals, rivers and lakes." -- Elsa Scadd, Amerindian, age 66, Amerindian Research Unit, University of Guyana, Guyana

"Poverty means that your children are crying and you have nothing to feed them." -- Nadejda Chirica, Deputy Chief, Division of the Department of Foreign Economic Relations, Ministry of Economy,
Chisinau, Moldova

"Poverty is to be marginalized, to be deprived of the freedom to choose and of the hope for change. Suppressing the reality of poverty is the strongest shield of the privileged against change. This is true for nations and for individuals. Change is a moral imperative." -- Poul Nielson, Minister for Development Cooperation, Denmark

"Poverty is hunger, illness and the lack of opportunity for a child to reach his or her potential." -- Charles F. MacCormack, President, Save the Children Foundation, USA

"Poverty is a serious crime. It causes you to do bad things. It encourages people to live in bondage." -- Dembo Singhateh, the Gambia

"Poverty is a hidden feeling of inferiority which makes a person feel different from others...."--Dahi L. Al-Fadhli, economist, Kuwait


I like the bold concept of a year dedicated to the eradication of poverty, the refusal to throw up hands, internationally, and accept that a certain level of poverty has been part of the human condition since Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise, and will be with us forever.

Others better qualified than I will point out how the untapped and/or wasted resources of the world, in its soil and in its seas, could indeed eradicate what the term "poverty" means as it is immediately conceived: lack of food. Feed the world, and that will be the end of poverty. And, of course, no one could argue that sustenance itself is not the priority. And that, further, with the wars that plague us, in the case of the communities of the oppressed and the communities of the aggressors, ordinary people are starving victims alike, and must be succoured without moral discrimination. To quote Bertolt Brecht in my own rough translation: "First fill the belly, then talk right and wrong."

But poverty has aspects other than lack of bread or rice or maize meal -- basics that keep the body alive.

In my own country, South Africa, lack of clean water has become one of the definitions of poverty, existing in communities that nevertheless have enough to eat.

The apartheid regime callously accepted that this kind of poverty, among others, was the lot of black communities; a trickle in a polluted river bed serving as both drinking water and for washing clothes and flesh was the reticulation available to them. An academic named Kader Asmal came back from political exile and as Minister of Water Affairs in our government led by the African National Congress defined this aspect of poverty. In two years he has established installations that pipe clean water to thousands of people who never before had access to it.

Food and water; they go together in eliminating the material aspects of poverty, along with shelter. For a long period, for many people in the more prosperous parts of the modern world, homelessness was something that existed elsewhere. It was truly a Third World phenomenon. The few clochards in Paris, picturesque rather than a matter for social conscience, the panhandlers as part of the tough bums-and-millionaires character of New York--at home, theirs was token destitution that could be bought off with a handful of small change. But now the Third World of poverty rather than geographical definition is everywhere; every city in the world is a warren of people with nowhere to live. Plastic and cardboard shelters are the defining architectural style of the late 20th century. Feed the world, and that will not be the end of poverty while men, women and their children squat in mud and dust, sun and rain.

Even beyond these material manifestations is another poverty. I want to speak of the deprivation of the intellect, of the world of ideas, from which millions suffer often without knowing it, condemned to plod through their lives at the lowest level of human consciousness. This goes beyond mere ignorance, though it begins with the fact of vast-spread illiteracy; many who can read and write can do so only listlessly in respect of the most humdrum demands of daily life.

The exploration of the truly human fullness of existence and of the ever-expanding limits of our consciousness with conceptual tools that rouse curiosity, wonderment at why we are here on earth, what influences and forms our attitudes to one another, to other creatures, to that layer of being, our environment, which encases us -- the mind that has no access to these, no access to music beyond pop jingles, literature beyond the bubble text of comics, beauty of form beyond the poses of cover girls, is in a state of poverty. First feed the belly, then talk aesthetics? Yes. But let us understand poverty as the sum of all its hungers, the conscious and the unconscious ones of its victims. Our responsibility is all-encompassing, this and every year.


Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.


RRojas Research Unit/1997