Despite apparent international consensus on eliminating poverty (UN Millennium Declaration, 2000) that claims to build on decades-old international commitments, the measure of whether international interventions actually reduce (or create, or institutionalize) poverty is still subject to heated disagreement. Despite the debate on whether poverty reduction is actually occurring, most of the discussion of reforms and solutions is focused on how poverty should be defined and which activities should be undertaken. In fact, there may be a more fundamental reason for the confusion over success and failure. There have long been international laws and treaties that guide the approach to poverty reduction within the framework of the international legal consensus for global peace, security, and rights, but they have yet to be incorporated into a standard when it comes to guiding current activities in approaches to poverty. The result is not merely confusion (and failures on a number of measures for reducing poverty) but probably violations of rights and the undermining of the international agenda for peace, security and rights.
According to the World Bank, in roughly the past 20 years (from 1990 to 2008), some 663 million people moved out of absolute poverty and the percentage of people living in absolute poverty, defined as earning less than $1.25 per day, fell nearly by half, from 40% to 18.4% (World Bank, 2012). But if absolute poverty is defined as $2 per day, the Bank notes that the change in poverty in absolute numbers was almost nil, with the number of poor in 1990, some 2.59 billion people, dropping only to 2.47 billion (World Bank, 2012). According to statistics from the Food and Agricultural Organization, the number of undernourished people in the world actually rose from 832 million in 1995 to 923 million in 2007 (FAO, 2012).
Indeed, the number of people living in dire poverty in the world today, using the World Bank's figures of 1.29 billion, is more than the entire human population on the planet just several decades ago, in 1950, while the 2.47 billion living on less than $2 per day is equal to the world's entire population in 1950 (2).
Generally, these numbers are also accompanied by caveats, explaining that most of the people who have been moved out of poverty are vulnerable to falling back into poverty as resources disappear, as populations continue to rise, and as high consumption and production make populations vulnerable to resultant threats from climate change and pollution. In many areas, it seems that poverty has not really been "reduced" but simply "postponed" without any attention to its long term causes. It is almost as if it is by design.
Many question whether the reduction in poverty is at all sustainable or simply a short-term treatment of symptoms. Benefits may be illusory results of transfer of technologies or outputs that, themselves, are based on short-term exploitation of resources (fossil fuels, ground water) and postponement of costs (chemical pollution, climate change, desertification and other ecological damage). Current "poverty reduction" may actually be setting the stage to ratchet up poverty and misery in the not so distant future.
The figures that the World Bank and United Nations do not present in seeking to justify their "poverty reduction" efforts are those of relative poverty. Calculations of income inequality over the past 200 years show that income inequality, as measured by the gini coefficient, steadily worsened from 1820 to 1913 (from.43 to.61) and that it has continued to worsen (to.68 in 2005, slightly down from its high point of.71 in 2002) (Milanovic, 2011).
What these data also do not show is what sacrifices--and direct violations of international law -may have occurred to achieve the absolute changes in "poverty reduction" that are sometimes regarded as positive. Most of the gains in reducing the percentages of people in the most absolute poverty have come from technology transfer and urbanization. In 1820, when some 75% of the population lived on less than $1 per day (Vasquez, 2001), when most of the global population was rural, it was also much more culturally diverse. Over the past 20 years, in introducing technologies that raised the lowest incomes, some 600 human cultures may have disappeared, partly as an unintended result of industrialization (whether or not under the name of "poverty reduction") but, more likely, as a result of intended cultural genocide (Krauss, 1992, Lempert, 2010) (3). We know that hundreds more cultures perished in the colonial era due to the forced removal of populations and theft of native lands as well as the result of war, disease, urbanization and other cultural contact in prior decades. Indeed, the current approach to "poverty reduction" in practice, that is promoted by international organizations today, may be criminalizing and eliminating cultures that are defined to be poor, as well as to limiting community choices.
The international community's consensus on "poverty reduction" activities appears to have been chosen (and may continue today) in violation of international agreements. One reason this occurs is because the international community does not offer any screening or indicator of whether any actions claimed to be in the name of "poverty reduction" actually meet international standards that have been established by international laws and treaties. With no screening for compliance with international law and principles, it is easy to understand why interventions just be "industrialization" or "colonialism" (resource and labor exploitation) under a different name, and how they have come to be labeled "poverty reduction" simply by using whichever arbitrary measure is selected by donors for "poverty" and its short-term symptoms.
The purpose of this article is to refocus the international community on the agreed goals and standards for "poverty reduction" that come out of international laws and treaties but seem to have disappeared from both theory and practice. In the same way that legal scholars have taken bodies of law and created legal documents that establish various elements and principles to fulfill those laws, this article offers a tool for practitioners and scholars that can be used to measure compliance with the establish international standards for poverty reduction. Such "codification" of principles essentially places them within the framework of law in the area of "international development interventions" where such principles exist in laws and treaties but have yet to be codified. Indeed, for the peoples of developing countries and for professionals, an indicator can serve as the basis for initiating political or even legal action against invasive or harmful activities that previously were difficult to hold to a common professional standard by recognizing that they are essentially principles of "international law".
Previously, this author has offered some 10 different indicators to measure whether international donors are meeting their obligations in international law and to professional standards in several of the most basic areas of "development" including "sustainability", "sovereignty/ freedom from dependency," and "democracy", "as part of an effort to establish accountability where little or none exists (Lempert, 2008). In a companion piece and other forthcoming pieces, the author is also offering a basic indicator of the international legal consensus on "international development" (Lempert, 2014) to be followed by an outline of "Universal Development Goals" that meet this agenda but that have only barely been incorporated into the United Nations' "Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)" (UN Millennium Declaration, 2000). Though these indicators have been presented to practitioners as mechanisms for compliance, they in fact represent a codification of international development law in the form of an emerging "legal treatise" of core principles and elements in this new area of law that has yet to be codified in any such treatise. This article starts with one of the core goals and justifications of international aid itself; the very definition of "poverty reduction" that is at the heart of international aid and offers a new indicator for measuring compliance and performance by listing its essential legal elements.
The piece begins with the core concepts of "poverty reduction" and then shows how these concepts were incorporated as part of the consensus of the international community in basic treaties. The article notes the lack of any existing indicator of "poverty reduction" and the harms that have resulted. It then places the international standards into a new legal tool that can easily be used to promote compliance. It holds up different types of international organizations to the international standard using this simple indicator, noting how most international projects have strayed from the standards. The piece then offers some thoughts on returning to the international standard.
FINDING THE CORE CONCEPTS--The principles of poverty reduction
The methodology for extracting the basic principles from a body of laws and treaties is one regularly used by lawyers and judges when trying to find the precepts underlying laws and is referred to as "statutory analysis". Though bodies drafting laws do not always fully define the theories and principles that they use when they reach a consensus and draft a law or a group of laws, legal scholars and judges routinely use laws to reconstruct the underlying principles (Cross, 1995; Bennion, 2009; Sutherland, 2010). There is no body of "international development law" as such, and there certainly is no "case law" of judicial interpretations of the principles and elements of "international development" and its various aspects like "poverty reduction". But there already are several international laws and treaties that define the basic elements of...