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Food & Hunger

The UN Is Investigating Extreme Poverty in the UK for the First Time

Why Global Citizens Should Care
769 million people live in extreme poverty worldwide — the lowest level in history. But different countries measure poverty in different ways. Now, an expert UN investigator is set to visit Britain to discover the hard truth: by his definition, how bad is poverty in the UK? Take action now to tackle the causes of extreme poverty around the globe.

Does Britain have a problem with extreme poverty? The United Nations is about to find out.

Globally, extreme poverty is defined as living on less than $1.90 (about £1.50) a day. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people living in extreme poverty around the world has fallen by 1 billion — over half — to 769 million.

But Professor Philip Alston, a UN human rights and extreme poverty investigator, describes extreme poverty as “a lack of income, a lack of access to basic services, and social exclusion,” according to the Guardian — and in November he will visit the UK to discover if Britain is guilty of meeting that definition.

Take Action: Tell the UK Government: Help Create a World Where #SheIsEqual

Alston is what’s known as a “rapporteur”, an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to objectively examine how a country is performing on a certain issue.

And now Britain is under the microscope — and Alston has already reached out to British people trapped in poverty to ask them to share their stories.

Alston will explore how universal credit, austerity, digital welfare systems, and Brexit impact on poverty as he comes to a verdict — including asking individuals and organisations how they define extreme poverty, potential government shortcomings, significant human rights violations, and more.

Charities, think-tanks, and academics are among those getting in touch — and some of the experiences they’ve already shared are shocking.

Take Alexander Tiffin, 30, who lives on universal credit in the Scottish Highlands. The disabled former soldier can’t afford to buy food — and has lost 16kg (2.5 stone) in weight as a result.

“At one time in February, I had no food at all for two weeks,” he wrote. “I probably ate on less than a quarter of the days in that month. I just had nothing. I lost two and a half stone...my hair has started falling out and my teeth are loose due to a lack of vitamin intake.”

The Guardian reports that Tiffin has also experienced mental health problems, including a “complete breakdown” during which he reportedly threatened to kill people. He was not charged by the police.

Read More: This New Report Paints a Striking Picture of Destitution in the UK

International NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), anti-poverty nonprofit Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and the Trussell Trust — a 428-strong food bank network in the UK — will also be sharing their experiences working against poverty with Alston.

Between April 2017 and March 2018 the Trussell Trust delivered nearly 1,333,000 three-day emergency food packages in Britain, including over 484,000 to children. It’s an increase of 13% from the previous year.

Meanwhile, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 1.5 million people, including 365,000 children, struggle with destitution on a daily basis — meaning that they lack two of six essentials: shelter, food, heating, lighting, clothing, or toiletries.

“There is a lot of hunger that goes under the radar, ranging from parents skipping meals, kids showing up to school hungry, and schools and families relying on low-cost, redistributed surplus food to make ends meet,” said HRW researcher Kartik Raj.

Read More: Universal Credit Puts 41,000 Children At Risk of Destitution by Christmas, Warns Housing Trust

“People have a right to food and an adequate standard of living,” he added. “These are human rights the government is obliged to ensure under international treaties it has signed. If the fifth largest economy in the world is failing to ensure that basic minimum, or letting things get worse, particularly for those who are least well off, then that is certainly something we will be bringing to the rapporteur’s attention.”

The UK government has formally invited Alston to conduct the visit. But as he investigates the consequences of austerity to public services, the Guardian reports that the visit may be “politically controversial.”

Earlier this year Alston authored a damning report criticising increasing poverty levels in the United States after a six-month trip, arguing that “the benefits of economic growth are going overwhelmingly to the wealthy.” Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, dismissed Alston’s report as “patently ridiculous.”

Submissions up to 2,500 words — and recommendations of where Alston should visit in the UK to get a snapshot of British poverty — can be sent to srextremepoverty@ohchr.org until Sept. 14.