Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

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Data Miners See Poverty Gradations; and More Cases of Harassment at the UN


A homeless shelter in Tehran, 2018. Although poverty has been reduced globally in the last few decades, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population live below $10 a day, according to a new data study.

International organizations, governments and a vast army of nongovernmental organizations justifiably welcome the sharp reductions that have been achieved in global poverty in recent decades. Data researchers show, however, that when it comes to defining who are the poorest, poverty is not a monolithic state.

Two analysts from the online site Our World in Data, a project based at Oxford University, recently studied various levels of poverty and focused on how the poor were faring above the extremely poor level of less than $1.90 a day.

“People living on $3, $5, or $10 per day also face substantial hardships, and are still living in poverty,” the authors, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Diana Beltekian, found. So, how has poverty changed relative to these higher thresholds?

The short answer is that global poverty rates have also been falling above the $1.90 line, the study concludes. “This means that, although much still needs to be done, progress has been real. The historical reductions in global extreme poverty are not merely the result of people moving marginally above some arbitrary misery threshold.”

Still, they find that “Today, almost two-thirds of the world population live below 10 dollars per day. This explains why, if we want to focus on those who are worst off, we need to use fairly low poverty lines, such as the $1.90 and $3.10 lines employed by the World Bank.”

The new publication, released in March, used an interactive World Bank site to produce a series of graphs charting the distribution of the world population across different poverty thresholds. These show that poverty has been generally reduced at all levels, but nevertheless may not have done much to benefit people whose status may have improved statistically but who remain in the lower ranks of livelihood.

Stalling: The UN Technique That Sidelines Harassment Charges

The International Civil Service Commission, or ICSC, is a small component of the United Nations world that is largely hidden from public view. It is a body made up of 15 commissioners chosen by the General Assembly, with the usual required regional representation. There are only about 40 staff members.

The independent Commission, which regulates salaries and working conditions for UN staff members, is an orphan in the system. Neither the secretary-general nor the president of the General Assembly has any power over it, even though the Commission chairman, currently Kingston Rhodes of Sierra Leone, holds the rank of UN under secretary-general and should be part of the UN-wide campaign against sexual harassment. A group of complainants on the Commission staff say that in their offices this is not the case, and that the “zero tolerance” policy of the UN is not being followed.

For years, according to a UN staff member who was not a victim in the case but still did not want to be identified, there has been an unhealthy atmosphere marked by harassment of women who fear that their careers could be damaged if they reject advances. Four women on the Commission staff have written to Secretary-General António Guterres explaining their situation.

A spokesman for Guterres said that the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, a kind of inspectorate, was examining the allegations but was asking for the cooperation of the Commission itself, since Guterres cannot intervene in a matter outside his jurisdiction. So, round and round it goes.

To those who know the women who have brought the allegations to the attention of Guterres, including some members of the UN staff union, it seems that the complainants are victims not only of abuse but also of a well-known UN stalling technique. In this case, Rhodes, the Commission chairman, is due to retire in December, when his second four-year term ends.

If he is held responsible for actions taken in the Commission under his watch and asked to step down early, his pension and other retirement benefits would be in jeopardy. If nothing conclusive happens in the case this year and an investigation drags into 2019, the chairman or other Commission members who may be rotating out of their jobs could no longer face sanctions.

The stalling of remedial action within the UN system is not uncommon, to judge from the experiences of staff members who have worked, for example, in peacekeeping missions, where charges of abuse go unattended, or are ignored, as paperwork passes from office to office.

In the ICSC case, Thalif Deen of IPS has written a comprehensive account of the legal and administrative tangles that can sidetrack accountability. In another recent article published by IPS, a former investigator for the Office of Internal Oversight Services, Peter Gallo, wrote about a “cover-up culture” and why it is unlikely to change.

“The road to promotion in the UN allows no tolerance for anything other than unconditional submission to the Organization and unthinking obedience to what is deemed to be the proper procedure, regardless of the consequences,” he wrote. “Criticism of the UN, including acknowledging that a problem exists, is heresy.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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Data Miners See Poverty Gradations; and More Cases of Harassment at the UN
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