There are serious challenges from persistent inequalities between and within countries of the world, even those expected to reach the poverty eradication Millennium Development Goal by 2015. Between 1990 and 2005, the income gap between the wealthiest and poorest 10 per cent of income earners increased in 70 per cent of countries for which data were available. According to the Secretary-General’s report on Poverty Eradication (2011), “the richest 1 per cent of the world’s population receives 14 per cent of global income, while the poorest 20 percent receives just over 1 per cent.” Poverty rates among indigenous peoples, racial/ethnic populations, and persons with disabilities are significantly higher due in large part to the uneven distribution of the benefits of globalization and marginalization resulting from social injustices and inequalities perpetuated by existing institutional frameworks. The purpose of this article is to share the recent advocacy of psychologists at the UN in New York City on poverty eradication.
Psychological Contributions to Poverty Eradication
During the Spring of 2012, the Commission for Social Development, the Commission on the Status of Women, the Negotiations for the Rio+20 Summit on Sustainable Development, and the Commission for Population and Development addressed the eradication of poverty. Their aim was to adopt more forward-looking policies that would lead to inclusive, equitable and sustainable development. For the first time in their history, the following eight psychology organizations accredited at the United Nations collaborated in their advocacy at these meetings: The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, American Psychological Association, Association for Trauma Outreach and Prevention, International Association of Applied Psychology, International Council of Psychologists, International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, International Union of Psychological Science, and the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology. I had the pleasure of coordinating the advocacy team of professionals and student interns in developing and distributing statements at each commission meeting as well as arranging meetings with the delegates of more than 20 governments.
The Secretary-General’s Report on Poverty Eradication acknowledges that poverty is multidimensional. Nevertheless, programming efforts to reduce poverty and increase sustainable development by governments, UN agencies, and the international community still generally focus on economic policies and indicators, especially the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). While we do not deny the importance of economic policies and measures, the purpose of our advocacy was to urge all stakeholders to address psychosocial factors as significant, complementary dimensions that are associated with—and necessary for—sustainable development. Our recommendations focused on promoting psychosocial well-being, psychosocial empowerment, mental health, and human rights and social justice.
Psychosocial well-being.There is a considerable body of psychological theory and research which suggests positive relationships among psychological well-being, social well-being, optimal functioning, and positive human development (Ryan & Deci, 2001). On April 2, the mission of the Royal Government of Bhutan hosted a high-level conference at the United Nations in New York. The conference highlighted the usefulness of well-being with its “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) Index (http://www.un.int/wcm/content/site/bhutan/pid/4106) and with other indices such as the Happy Planet Index. Nobel Laureate economists, international experts, and UN member states like France, Great Britain, and Japan have initiated efforts to complement the GDP as the measure of national wealth with a measure that quantifies well-being alongside economic strength. The recently released World Happiness Report, (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2012) provides further support for the viability of including such measures. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community” (World Health Organization, 2007).
Therefore, we urged governments to call for indicators of “psychosocial well-being” in their Final Outcome Documents on poverty eradication and sustainable development. We also recommended that governments support Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index, indices of psychosocial well-being included in the 2010 UNDP Human Development Report, and related indices being explored by governments such as France, Great Britain, and Japan as measures of sustainable development.
Psychosocial empowerment.In community psychology, the term “empowerment” has come to mean “an intentional, ongoing process, centered in the local community, involving mutual respect, critical reflection [i.e., evaluation], caring, and group participation, through which people lacking an equal share of resources gain greater access to and control over those resources” (see Zimmerman, 2000, p. 43). Applying a community psychology perspective (Zimmerman 1990; 2000), psychosocial empowerment of persons living in poverty might be achieved through the following three steps: First, psychological distress needs to be reduced and participation in economic and social activities encouraged. Second, a sense of belonging should be increased through building or enhancing existing community networks. Third, persons living in poverty should be engaged in social and economic decision-making at all levels, or they may come to view their lives as too externally controlled (Spreitzer, 2005; Hur, 2006).
Our recommendations to promote psychosocial empowerment called on governments to provide access to productive employment, decent work and training about entrepreneurship and income generating activities, which develop a sense of ownership, optimism, and personal efficacy. We also urged governments to provide access to quality primary, secondary, and higher education as an important pathway to psychosocial empowerment.
Mental health & social protection services.The international community is slowly coming to the realization “that mental health is one of the most neglected yet essential development issues in achieving the Millennium Development Goals”, including poverty eradication (World Health Organization, 2010). Poor mental health is both a cause and a consequence of poverty. According to the World Happiness Report (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2012), mental health is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country. Yet only a quarter of mentally ill people get treatment for their condition in advanced countries and even fewer do so in poorer countries.Research provided by WHO indicates that the majority of persons with mental and psychosocial disabilities, especially in low-income countries, are not able to access essential income-generating opportunities, education, health, mental health care and other social services.
Psychological research has shown that there is a strong relation between poverty and depression (Simmons et al., 2008). Multiple stressors including isolation, unemployment, lack of education and economic opportunities and resources interact to cause anxiety and depression, which have a deleterious impact on the ability to cope, resulting in the persistence of poverty (Mazure, et al., 2002; Smalley, et al., 2010; Beeson et al., 1998; Beck, et al., 1996; Mulder & Shellenberger, 1999).
The UN has launched an important Social Protection Floor Initiative to build a global coalition committed to supporting countries in building national social protection floors for their citizens, under the joint coordination of the WHO and the International Labour Organization (ILO). The Social Protection Floor Initiative aims for countries to provide universal access to essential services (such as health, education, housing, water and sanitation and other services as nationally defined); and Social Transfers in cash or kind to guarantee income security, food security, adequate nutrition and access to essential services. The Secretary-General’s Report on Poverty Eradication (2011) states that “Countries that have developed comprehensive, universal social protection policies covering the majority of the population have successfully reduced poverty and improved social conditions on a broad scale” (paragraph 51).
Therefore, we urged governments and the international community to implement the Social Protection Floor Initiative within a lifespan, human rights framework, including access to mental health care within primary health care, to take care of basic human needs of all vulnerable groups. We proposed that an effective Social Protection Floor would provide for basic needs of vulnerable sectors of society, which would then be enabled and empowered to strive for psychological and psychosocial well-being. We recommended accessible multidisciplinary social service centers or mobile vans to provide one-stop services, such as health, mental health, literacy, continuing education, and entrepreneurial training, especially in rural areas. We also recommended that governments provide psychologists and mental health counselors, well versed in culturally relevant methodology, to train and work with local community peer coaches to recognize mental health problems and to provide services and referrals in an informed, nondiscriminatory manner.
Human Rights & Social Justice
Disparities affecting individuals, groups, and communities are violations of their human rights to survival, protection, development and social participation, and are key factors predisposing them to poverty. Psychological and social science research demonstrates that social inequalities prevent people from developing their capacities and contributing as productive members of society. Based on this, we urged governments to: (1) put human rights at the center of their framework for sustainable national development and to review and replace those laws, policies, programs and practices at all levels that discriminate against individuals on the basis of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, disability, rural/urban/suburban residence and other categories of social identity. (2) Eliminate educational, social, economic and health/mental health disparities that have multigenerational and intergenerational psychosocial consequences that contribute to the persistence of poverty in families and communities. (3) Provide ongoing human rights learning for all members of society, especially individuals and groups living in poverty, to foster their vitality, resilience and activism to alleviate poverty conditions as social injustices, and to advocate for positive social and economic changes in their own lives and the lives of others, thus moving more successfully toward sustainable development.