Helen Clark: Book launch of "The Unheard Truth" by Irene Khan

15 Oct 2009

Remarks of Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator, on the occasion of the launch of "The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights"
A book by Irene Khan
The Council of Foreign Relations, New York

I am pleased to be here today for the launch of The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights.

At the outset, allow me to congratulate Irene Khan on a passionate work, and for highlighting the importance of upholding human rights in the drive to reduce poverty and advance human development.

This book and its launch today both complement Amnesty International’s ‘Demand Dignity’ campaign.  Throughout the campaign, Amnesty International points out that poverty is not only about a lack of income.  It is also about the denial of accountability for human rights violators, access to rights for all, and the active participation of people living in poverty in processes which affect their lives. 

The launch of the book is very timely.  Reducing poverty looms large in the Millennium Development Goals, with the target of reducing by half, by the year 2015, the number of those living in extreme poverty, compared to 1990.  At a global level that target seems likely to be achieved. Some regions, however, will fall far short, and as many as one billion people worldwide are likely to remain in extreme poverty by the target date.

It is certainly my view that economic growth has a significant role to play in reducing poverty – but on its own it cannot do the job.  Markets do not deliver equity and justice.  It is not their function.  It is public policy which determines whether the fruits of growth are widely distributed and whether opportunity and justice are available to all.  And very importantly, in this century, if the growth needed to provide the resources to be redistributed is not green growth, then it will not enable us in the medium and longer term to reduce poverty and hunger levels sustainably.

Now, as the world grapples with the consequences of multiple and often inter-related crises, the challenges of reducing poverty and meeting the MDGs and other internationally agreed development goals are greater.

In all these crises, from the global recession to the recent experiences of high food and fuel prices, from the climate change challenge to the flu pandemic, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are hit the hardest.  

Worldwide, the number of people who will live in extreme poverty this year is now estimated to be 55 to 90 million higher than was forecast before the recession.

In the course of the next year, progress on the Millennium Development Goals will be in the spotlight, in the lead up to the high level review conference at the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2010.  

UNDP is presently heavily engaged in looking at how progress on the MDGs might be accelerated, even in the face of all the current challenges to development.  Clearly a gender perspective needs to be applied to the review, as it is in areas where women’s needs and status have low priority that the MDGs struggle the most.  

But recognizing that also directs us to rights issues more generally, and Irene’s book makes a powerful case for seeing the denial of human rights as a significant barrier to the fight against poverty.

For nearly twenty years now, UNDP has advanced the notion of human development – of expanding the choices people have to lead lives which they value, the resources which would make those choices meaningful, and the security to ensure that those choices can be exercised in peace.

That means ensuring that the full range of factors which impact on human development – and not just economic growth - get adequate attention.

In particular, in a number of UNDP publications since 2000 the links between rights and human development have been emphasised, and practice notes for our development practitioners in the field have been issued on how to include human rights and governance issues in poverty reduction strategies.  

Irene’s book reinforces the case for doing that.  She argues that, ultimately, to reach each of the Millennium Development Goals, the rights-related issues of equality, non-discrimination, participation, inclusion, accountability, and social justice need to be addressed.  

She also notes that global progress towards the MDGs tends to obscure the lack of traction for significant populations – both within countries and across regions.

In particular, women, rural inhabitants, ethnic minorities and other excluded groups often lag well behind national averages of progress on the MDG targets – even when nations as a whole are moving towards the goals.

There is a pressing need for poverty reduction strategies to specifically reach out to those who are missing out, and to tailor and customize the MDG targets to local contexts.  

These are important messages for all of us, and UNDP takes them very seriously.

Our ongoing work on reducing poverty and promoting democratic governance is centered on supporting countries to design and institute policies and programmes which can contribute not only to inclusive and green growth, but also to the reduction of various forms of inequality and the expansion of choice and opportunity.

We also believe that sustaining progress on development is always assisted by government at all levels being transparent, accountable, and responsive to its citizens.

In the rights area specifically, UNDP is a strong proponent of work related to the legal empowerment of the poor.

This work assumes that the real life experiences and expectations of poor people should be the starting point for development efforts.  It combines a bottom-up approach with a strong focus on the development of capacity and institutions, empowering people to demand and exercise their rights, while also strengthening institutions to be more responsive to the needs of all citizens.

We work in areas from promoting the rule of law, to strengthening human rights institutions; supporting effective inheritance and property rights for women; and improving tenure security for and the land rights of the poor.  The labour and livelihood rights of the poor will best be secured in more inclusive markets.

Our work is guided by the strong conviction that ensuring equal opportunities and protection must be central to advancing human development, and to achieving the MDGs and other internationally agreed development goals.

The current crises our world faces call for renewed attention to our development challenges; out-of-the-box thinking; and  redoubled efforts by all development stakeholders – programme countries, donors, NGOs, the private sector, and multilateral actors.

By presenting a compelling and urgent case that economic solutions alone cannot bring an end to poverty, and that upholding human rights and empowering poor people should be an integral part of our efforts to achieve poverty reduction and the MDGs, Irene Khan’s book will make a significant contribution to the debate about how to advance development, even in these challenging times.