Global Citizen’s 2022 campaign, End Extreme Poverty NOW — Our Future Can’t Wait, is calling for action from the world’s leaders on three key areas in the mission to end extreme poverty: empowering adolescent girls, climate action, and the dismantling of the systemic barriers that keep people in poverty. Cutting across all our work is a strong commitment to defend and promote advocacy, ensuring that marginalized voices are heard. 

You can read more about our campaigning on empowering adolescent girls here (check back in with us next week for a more in-depth look!), and climate action here. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at key systemic barriers that prevent progress on ending extreme poverty — what that actually means, and why action to break down these barriers is so important. 

Imagine you’re stuck in a small room with glass walls. There’s no door to let you out, and the walls are far too high for you to climb over, even though you’ve tried several times to do so, leaving you feeling defeated each time you fall back to the floor. You were either placed in this room by someone you don’t know, or you were born there and have never left. It doesn’t matter how you got there; what’s most important right now is that you need to get out. 

Why? Because the resources that you need to continue surviving (like food, water, and access to adequate health care) are running out, and the conditions in the room are becoming more and more unlivable every day. Looking beyond the glass you can see dozens of people surrounding the room. They’re talking at you, but mainly to each other, about how they desperately want to get you out — but their efforts are merely tokenistic, rather than empowering you with the tools and opportunities you actually need to break yourself out.

The room itself is the state of poverty, and the glass walls that tower over you are the systemic barriers that keep you in that room. 

It sounds frustrating, doesn’t it? Yet it’s a continued reality for millions of people around the world today, and that’s why Global Citizen is advocating for those walls, those systemic barriers, that have been keeping people in poverty to be broken down. 

What do these systemic barriers look like, in reality? Well, there's a number of them, but with the pandemic exposing vast inequities between rich and poor countries, Global Citizen is focusing on building sustainable access to health care and achieving financial equity so the poorest countries can recover from the pandemic and provide essential needs for their populations.

Why Must We Break Systemic Barriers NOW? 

The answer is simple: Millions of people have been pushed into and trapped in poverty, and the world is witnessing a shocking growth in the inequality gap, largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its socioeconomic impacts. 

Jonah Kanter, who leads on policy and advocacy for COVID-19 at Global Citizen, explained it best. 

“COVID-19 exposed how unfair and unequal our world is, especially around health care, access to life-saving vaccines, and in financing to help people through an economic crisis,” he said. 

“Rich countries had priority while poorer nations waited or couldn't get support,” he continued. “These inequities were baked into the global health and financial system before the pandemic and must be broken in order to end extreme poverty.” 

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic pushed close to 100 million people into poverty, meaning they are living on less than US$2 a day because of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the rich got richer. 

That’s right. The global financial inequality gap grew a great deal in the face of the pandemic; the wealthy became wealthier, and those living in (or pushed into) poverty saw their income disappear and their resources diminish. There are two major issues here: The pandemic is a direct threat to people’s health and livelihoods, particularly those not living in high-income countries; and poverty increased globally, yet somehow, so did the wealth of the richest people and countries in the world.

The coronavirus continues to spread and mutate unabated, despite the fact that numerous vaccines have been available for well over a year. This is in large part due to wealthy countries hoarding vaccines early on. 

Now, with these wealthy nations having vaccinated large numbers of their populations and going on to introduce the rollout of booster shots, middle- and low-income nations are playing an unfair game of catch up, with not enough help from their wealthy counterparts, pharmaceutical companies, and global business leaders. 

Be it for COVID-19 or future pandemic threats, two of the biggest barriers to vaccine access for all are vaccine nationalism (the hoarding of vaccines by wealthy countries), and the refusal of pharmaceutical companies to share their intellectual property and technology with developing nations so that they too can independently make vaccines for their populations. 

This independence in vaccine-making for developing countries is important, as it guarantees self-sufficiency rather than having to wait around for doses to become available, or for wealthy countries to donate and share them. Access to this know-how and technology would help developing countries limit the impact of COVID-19, and be better prepared for future health threats. 

Looking at ending the current pandemic, a major issue that lower-income countries are facing is difficulty delivering vaccines to the communities that need them most. Transporting and storing COVID-19 vaccines requires certain considerations and infrastructure that some lower-income countries do not have access to. Doses need to move from national airports to secluded or distant regions and communities where they can be administered, and this is not an easy feat for countries that do not have the capacity for this necessary infrastructure — which includes cold chain storage and equipment. 

This issue has even led to the Africa CDC calling for the spacing out of dose donations to make sure that they don’t expire en route to their intended destination. 

There are initiatives underway that have been put in place to help curb these issues, including USAID’s Global VAX initiative, which has been working to support vaccine campaigns, mobile facilities, and cold chain storage to help make sure that vaccines get where they need to be. You can read more about that here. COVAX also has delivery support top of mind, and aims to make sure that deliveries of doses to those most in need are prioritized alongside the general acquisition of doses. 

Who Is Most Affected by Systemic Barriers, and Why? 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that everyone in the world is affected by the systemic barriers that are both prolonging the pandemic and keeping people in poverty.

If the pandemic is not defeated for every person on the planet, the virus will not only continue to devastate unvaccinated populations, but it is also free to continue to spread and mutate — putting us all at risk from potentially more deadly and more infectious variants that our current vaccines may not work against. 

At the same time, the ongoing economic disruption caused by the pandemic has pushed an additional 97 million people into extreme poverty. This has overwhelmingly affected citizens in the Global South, countries and populations hit most significantly by the impacts of the pandemic and left struggling to recover.

The pandemic triggered the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, leading to business closures, job losses, and loss of income for millions of people globally. As a result of this economic blow, countries had to pivot funding for national needs towards tackling the pandemic, and in the cases of lower-income countries, which did not have the reserve assets to fight the pandemic at the drop of a hat, funding was insufficient to both tackle the pandemic and keep their economies afloat. Meaning that they had to borrow. In fact, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that 60% of low-income countries are at high risk of facing debt distress following the impact of the pandemic. 

What’s more is that pledges for additional aid from wealthy nations to low-income countries are far from being met. This additional development assistance could help make sure that national needs such as alleviating hunger and providing health care assistance are met, so that national governments can remain focused on recovering from the pandemic. All of this means that low-income countries face an uphill battle when it comes to recovering from the pandemic.

We can all agree that we’re tired of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the world’s most vulnerable countries still face COVID-19 as a major threat, and cannot adequately deal with this threat because of a lack of resources and funding to support their health systems and fully recover economically. 

What Needs to Happen to Break Systemic Barriers? 

Global Citizen is calling on governments, pharmaceutical companies, and the private sector to step up their support for the world’s most vulnerable populations, and to play their part in bringing those walls down and breaking the systemic barriers that are continuing to keep people in poverty. 

First, this means prioritizing the end of the pandemic and mitigating future health threats by increasing vaccine production capacity across all continents. Pharmaceutical giants need to share their intellectual property and transfer essential technologies to help boost this production on continents and in countries that need it most.

A prime example of this is getting them to support the mRNA vaccine hub currently being established in Africa, and getting vaccine-producing wealthy countries to be fully on board with the IP Waiver proposed by South Africa and India. We also need wealthy nations to significantly step up funding to support health systems in poorer nations so that vaccines, tests, and treatments can reach people in need as soon as possible. 

Secondly, we need to focus on COVID-19 recovery and stabilizing the economies of nations that have plunged deeper into poverty as a result of trying to fend off the pandemic, and the debts that they incurred because of the pandemic’s socio-economic impacts. 

Global Citizen is calling on wealthy nations to fulfill existing pledges to assist developing nations with aid, and to increase their official development assistance (ODA) — a system where rich governments make and fulfill intentional aid commitments to help developing countries. With conflict, climate change, and COVID-19 all compounding the challenges poorer countries face, we simply need more resources, more urgently, to alleviate extreme hunger, tackle other disease threats, and support vulnerable populations. . 

Stabilizing economies will also take the reallocation of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) to assist those who need them most. SDRs are essentially a financial reserve asset allocated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that can be traded between countries in exchange for liquidity or cash. 

In a historic first, the IMF issued US$650 billion in SDRs for pandemic recovery — however rich countries benefited most from the SDR allocation, while poorer countries, who need the financial lifeline most, got the least. That’s why Global Citizen is calling for the reallocation of at least US$100 billion in SDRs to help stabilize the economies hit hardest by the pandemic. 

Finally, Global Citizen is advocating for new ways to finance global health care and recovery that will be sustainable and impactful for those who need it most. This includes making sure that, as G20 countries considers tax reforms as part of their agenda for this November’s G20 Summit, they prioritize equity and consider the needs and rights of developing countries. 

What Action Can We All Take to Help? 

The first thing that you can do is become a Global Citizen and stay up to date with developments on this “Systemic Barriers” focus area of our campaign. Sign up to be a Global Citizen, either on our website or by downloading the Global Citizen app, and read more about our overall End Extreme Poverty NOW campaign here

You can then take action with us by calling on world leaders to prioritize vaccine justice now. All you have to do is record a short video and share your message with leaders here. You can also join the call to end vaccine monopolies — all you have to do is tweet those involved here

Finally you can join us in calling directly on pharmaceutical companies to support the mRNA vaccine hub that is being established in Africa by taking action here

We have lots more vaccine and financial equity actions that you can take with us when you become a Global Citizen, so make sure you sign up and head over to our “Break Systemic Barriers NOW” campaign page here to see what more you can do!

You can join the End Extreme Poverty NOW — Our Future Can't Wait campaign by signing up as a Global Citizen (either here or by downloading the Global Citizen app) and joining us in breaking systemic barriers NOW.

Global Citizen Explains

Defeat Poverty

Why Must We Break Systemic Barriers NOW — And What Does That Actually Mean?

By Khanyi Mlaba