Letters & Opinion

No Poverty Reduction Without Increased Political Commitment

Image of Earl Bousquet
Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

OCTOBER 17 every year is observed as International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

So, why a special day to highlight poverty eradication? Because there are 700 million people – or one 10th of the world’s population — living in poverty right now, almost half of whom (all of 385 million people) are children.

Poverty Eradication is therefore a worthy aim. But it’s been hard to achieve in reality in most countries. That’s why most realistically aim for Poverty Reduction.

But poverty can in fact be reduced – and almost eliminated. It all depends on how serious the government is.

China, with 1.8 billion people, is leading the world in poverty reduction. According to the United Nations, China contributes 70% to all global poverty reduction efforts today and aims to eradicate it in 2021.

However, poverty is still very real all over the world and equally affects the poor in developed and developing countries.

One of the main reasons it isn’t being eradicated or reduced quickly enough to make a difference in most countries is because not all governments agree on how to do it. As a result, poverty reduction is left to the ups and downs of market forces — which tend to be more down than up.

That’s exactly the case in Saint Lucia and all CARICOM member-states, Latin America and the Caribbean, across Africa and Asia, as well as in developed countries in Europe and North America.

So, what’s Saint Lucia’s story? Is poverty being meaningfully reduced? Is there a plan for eventual elimination?

Saint Lucia established a Poverty Reduction Fund (PRF) after the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) took office under Prime Minister Dr Kenny D. Anthony in 1997 and it did provide poverty relief through creation of thousands of jobs through projects in all constituencies and generally helping poor people in direct ways never done before.

The PRF’s efforts bore fruit alongside the National Conservation Authority (NCA), the Short Term Employment Program (STEP) and the Basic Needs Trust Fund (BNTF) — a Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) initiative launched in 1979 that’s now present in ten CARICOM states.

The STEP program largely benefitted the poor, but it also helped the private sector, many businesses quietly taking advantage of the opportunity it afforded business places to hire new staff — with half their salaries paid by STEP. The program also funded everything from annual summer vacation camps to maintenance teams to keep playing fields in playing conditions around the country to provision of administrative assistants for school principals.

Also back then, the SLP administration had been able to get China to fund the Constituency Development Program (CDP), which again helped improve conditions through direct funding of community-based projects that created employment and put more food on more poor families’ tables.

After 2006, the SLP Administration’s Poverty Reduction strategy again became a victim of regime change in 2016, when the PRF and the BNTF were merged to create the Saint Lucia Social development Fund (SSDF).

Successive UWP administrations have not done away with the various poverty reduction programs inherited, only rearranging their operations after elections to supposedly cleanse them from alleged partisan political influence, in the process eliminating whatever access vast numbers of poor persons had to jobs.

After breaking ties with China and re-establishing with Taiwan in 2007, the UWP administration was able to get Taipei to continue funding the CDP, but under new rules that saw funds go directly to MPs instead of through the Consolidated Fund, leading to an official and expensive Forensic Audit that revealed documented instances of alleged violations of normal procedures related to handling of and accounting for funds donated by other countries.

After two decades of programs and projects aimed at poverty reduction, Saint Lucia has a mixed report card. The island is the 4th largest recipient of BNTF funding. It also uses internationally-accepted yardsticks to measure poverty based on household income and other demographics. The NCA continues to provide employment. The SSDF continues to fund basic needs projects island-wide. The STEP program continues.

The country does have a Poverty Reduction Strategy and Action Plan under the Ministry of Social Transformation (MOST and it does use the international yardsticks to measure poverty reduction.

However, governments tend to mistakenly measure their contributions to poverty reduction by the annual levels of job creation and resulting ups and downs in employment rates.

This approach, like measuring development according to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is not only outmoded but a failed one which is based on the equally wrong claim that employment can only be created and the poor can only be helped out of poverty by further enriching the rich.

This trickle-down approach has failed Saint Lucia and the Caribbean for generations, as governments tend to largely see direct employment as a private sector responsibility and not that of the state.

All the poverty reduction programs earlier referred are still in place here alongside the usual public assistance programs for the elderly and indigent. But figures from the past decade will show that while there have been very slight decreases in poverty and indigence, the overall contribution of such programs to poverty reduction nationally is not impactful enough for even the government to report on.

Not all ruling parties elsewhere will want to do what it’s taken to make China the first country to eventually erase poverty through purposeful related projects at national level. No CARICOM government will pour the comparative amount of national budgetary resources into poverty reduction as China does. None in office anywhere else has demonstrated an equal level of political commitment to actually reduce and/or eliminate poverty in real terms. But all will remain eternally wishful they could.

Never mind Caribbean parties being able to win all seats in national elections, none will even try to use that amount of complete parliamentary power to pursue Poverty Reduction in the ways necessary to make a real and recognizable dent on poverty.

Against that background, both parties, in government, have pursued different approaches to poverty reduction, each set of policy approaches eventually becoming victims of the next regime change.

The result is that no government can claim to have really reduced poverty here in ways that any can really shout loudly about, except through statistical comparisons that still do nothing to change the fact that poverty is still a major factor in Saint Lucia.

Governments and parties here indeed need to do much more to show more seriousness about poverty reduction than the regional and international agencies that continue to support our poverty reduction and alleviation efforts.

We may never be able to eradicate poverty in our lifetime under our political system, but all governments can do better than they have.
Poverty reduction will require a level of political decision-making and purposeful commitment backed by bipartisan parliamentary support for laws that will ensure and guarantee institutional continuity of programs beyond elections, as they will also benefit people supporting all parties.

But nothing on the ground or on the horizon offers any reason for hope beyond mere continuity of the same — except if any party decides to break with tradition and pay more than thick lip service and limited attention to ensuring that poverty reduction is measurable, measured and felt in ways that will inspire hope and encourage more international support for related national initiatives.

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