UN on poverty

A United Nations  ‘rapporteur’ spent 12 days investigating the impact of ‘austerity  in the UK. The  Huff Post reported that he said

“During my visit I have spoken with people who depend on foodbanks  and charities for  their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep. Who have sold sex for money or shelter, [and] children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future” 

Since he clearly couldn’t have found these people on a random interaction with the populace at large, it is likely that he was shepherded from one scenario to another by people with an ‘agenda’, presumably selected carefully as being the worst examples they could find. Worse, the targets to whom he spoke have naturally every incentive to stick one  to the government and exaggerate their situation when being asked about their plight. This is what statisticians call ‘selection bias’; if you do a survey in the Sahara desert  for evidence of global lack of water, it’s likely that you conclude it’s critical. The shepherds in this case included  the Poverty Alliance and the Child Poverty Action Group, who are presumably not neutral in their views on the effect of austerity.

The rapporteur in question was Philip Alston, holder of both academic and UN (doubtless well paid)  sinecures.

Grumpy has issues with the type of exaggerated language  used by Alston, because, in spite of his being an academic it is (a) imprecise  and (b) as reported, is designed to confuse. As the Resolution Foundation acknowledges, being in relative poverty does not mean being poor by some absolute definition. Alston uses the tired but common trick of conflating these two things to inflate his message.

However, the main issue is that Alston’s apparent title is  “UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights”. Now, measured in quantitative terms of the percentage of a population living with an income of less than USD 5.50 per day on a purchasing power parity basis, there are 147 countries worse than the UK. Grumpy doesn’t know how many of these Alston has covered, but (even in Europe) if he has not reported on Macedonia (25% below this level) but has selected the UK (0.7% below this level) one starts to sense the reek of a political agenda with a strongly socialist bias. Presumably, he doesn’t get the same self seeking publicity from trashing the Macedonian government as he does from the UK, which just may have something to do with his choice of country if he hadn’t completed the other 147.

Compared with the billions of people round thew world living in utter abject poverty and with desperately short life expectancy, a very small percentage in the UK reach the limit implied by Alston’s title, and he could have better served his title by addressing himself more to their  plight.