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UN Special Rapporteur on China’s achievements in poverty alleviation

GPIG by Mariatou Ngum, December 1, 2016 Adjust font size:

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, has stated that China’s achievements in alleviating extreme poverty in recent years, and in meeting highly ambitious targets for improving social well-being, have been extraordinary.

He remarked that the Chinese Communist Party is confronted with enormous challenges in the form of slower growth rates, dramatic inequality, deep-rooted environmental degradation and a struggle to define the rule of law.

Speaking at a press conference on the 23rd of August 2016 in Beijing at the end of his first official visit to China, Mr. Alston affirmed that China’s determination to build a moderately prosperous society free of extreme poverty could not be doubted. “This political will is impressive and all too uncommon in today’s world,” he said.

The purpose of his visit was to assess the efforts of the Chinese government to eradicate poverty and how such efforts are anchored in its international human rights obligations.

During his nine-day visit, the UN Special Rapporteur met and engaged with the representatives of the central and local governments, as well as academic experts in Beijing and Yunnan province among others.

Therefore, Mr. Alston opined that China has much to be proud of in the field of poverty alleviation. “However, if it is to effectively ensure the implementation of its economic and social rights obligations, it needs to adopt more robust mechanisms for citizen involvement and for governmental accountability,” he stressed.


According to Mr. Alston’s report at the end of his visit, over the past three decades, and with particular speed in recent years, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. This staggering achievement, he noted, is a credit to those responsible.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said, “If there are lessons to be drawn by other countries from China’s achievements, the principal ones would seem to be that a well-functioning market economy is capable of generating large financial returns, including for the state, government intervention to improve the situation of the relatively large numbers of people whom the market inevitably bypasses, and a genuine political will to alleviate poverty is arguably the most important ingredient of all.”

The challenges ahead

According to him, government statistics indicate that 5.7% of China’s population was still living in extreme poverty at the end of 2015. He noted that rates vary significantly from as high as 10% in western China, to only 1.8% in eastern China.

Certain groups, he said, are especially vulnerable, such as ethnic minorities for whom the rate is 12.1% and the elderly and youth for whom it is above 9%.

President Xi Jinping has promised to eliminate extreme poverty by 2020 so that no-one shall be left behind. In this practice, this means lifting 55.75 million rural people out of extreme poverty defined by reference to an income-based standard of USD2.30 per day or 2,800 yuan per year. The goal is enshrined in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) and all levels of government and the Party have been instructed to give it the highest priority. All indications are that it will be met, perhaps even ahead of time.

Again, Mr. Alston went on to add that this is an impressive and admirable goal, but several observations are in order.

First, comprehensive elimination is not anticipated, since, for administrative purposes, the goal will be considered to have been met as long as rates across the board are below a 3% threshold.

Second, the program is aimed at the rural poor, and does not include specific measures directed at eliminating extreme poverty in the urban areas.

Third, some experts suggest that the ‘tyranny of indicators’ has compelled officials to focus too narrowly on income-based approaches to poverty alleviation, thus paying insufficient attention to the multi-dimensional aspects of poverty.

Forth, experts have also questioned whether the elimination of extreme poverty is sustainable in the medium-term in the absence of a broader array of measures which currently being greatly overshadowed by the imperative need to meet the Party’s goals prior to the 100th anniversary of its founding.

Fifth, and most importantly in terms of the present preliminary statement, is whether the current approach is being carried out in a manner that conforms to human rights obligations and in particular whether it provides for meaningful accountability mechanisms.

(The author is deputy chief editor of Gambia Daily Observer)

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