Since 1992, the world has observed what is formally known as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on October 17. This year is no different. Except it is. This is the first (and hopefully last) time the day occurs during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year the annual designation offers us an important reminder that while so many of us in developed countries are suffering economically from this global crisis, there are some who are suffering more.
Since 1990, the number of people living in extreme poverty, defined as living on $1.90 per day or less, has plummeted from 1.9 billion people to roughly 800 million. At no time in history has such an incredible success story been witnessed or told. And yet, the response to the pandemic is threatening to disrupt this encouraging trend. The World Bank now estimates that between 88 million and 115 million people are at risk of slipping back into extreme poverty in the coming months.
We can and should do something about it. Dignity Unbound, a project of Atlas Network, is all about one thing: ending extreme poverty for good. We stand on the shoulders of many experiments and approaches that, unfortunately, for the most part, have shown us what does not work. Central to the lessons learned is to recognize that human prosperity starts with human dignity and the unwavering recognition that those we hope to see thrive know things we do not. They know their culture, they know their history, they know their communities, their values, their dreams, and their preferences. Respect for human dignity means more than caring about other people. It means recognizing the critical role their unique, local knowledge plays in discovering solutions to poverty.
For those reasons Dignity Unbound is not your typical aid project. We partner with local NGOs in diverse places who advance their own vision for change because they know what needs to change for their communities to thrive. Our job is to find the most promising projects and fuel their success with our support.
Right now, during the pandemic, people facing extreme poverty need choices, they need opportunities, they need uncorrupt governments and equality under the law. Under those conditions, people thrive.
In Sri Lanka, we partnered with a local NGO that discovered the government had artificially inflated the price of essential goods such as tampons and diapers with taxes and tariffs. Their survey work showed that most women and girls in rural areas simply went without sanitary napkins when they needed them. This forced them to miss school and work, leading to increased dropouts and dismissals. One hospital, because of the high price of diapers, began requiring the families of infant patients to contribute to the hospital’s diaper supply in order to receive certain treatments. Faced with the same constraints, many families were forced to steal diapers or else lose the chance to make their babies well.
In India, we partnered with a local NGO who worked to legitimize street vendors so that the hundreds of thousands of low-income merchants could enjoy legal protection from thieving police and other government officials who historically knew they could take money and goods from street vendors with no consequences.
In Burundi, we supported a local NGO who worked with government to rewrite the rules for microenterprises so that those struggling at the edge of subsistence could grow their businesses in the legal market. The year prior to these reforms Burundi saw only a 5 percent in new businesses. The year following saw a 49 percent increase. That is how aid should work to empower thousands, if not millions, of people to apply their own knowledge to their circumstances and lead themselves to a brighter future. That is aid founded in and guided by human dignity. That is Dignity Unbound.