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Wish we'd thought of that: Innovative ways of addressing poverty from around the globe

From free public transportation to subsidised housing to paying women and men the same for the same work, here's a sampler of ways to reduce poverty that are being tried around the world.

Top image: New Delhi, India. Photo by Ben Mack.

It’s hard to argue against the fact that ending poverty is one of the greatest challenges we face today. While much time and effort have been invested by a lot of very smart people here in Aotearoa to address it, we’re also keenly aware that it’s an issue, unfortunately, everywhere on earth. In 2018, that’s simply unacceptable (though it was always unacceptable).

Here’s a look at a few other things being done around the world to end poverty and promote a more equal society where everyone has an opportunity to succeed, free from barriers and discrimination.

Free public transportation

Being able to get around is a human right – and necessary in the modern world. But the reality is that transportation is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination – and charging people money to get around on public transit lines can be a big money-maker for cities, or at least help them offset the often-high costs of buildings public transit infrastructure.

A number of locales have tried to do something, however, by offering free public transportation. Tallinn is perhaps the most famous example – public transportation in the Estonian capital has been free since 2013.

A few other cities have also adopted free public transportation models, including the Russian city of Voronezh, the Faroe Islands capital of Torshavn, the Icelandic city of Akureyri, the Romanian city of Ploiești, and several towns and cities in France, Sweden and Belgium. In the Netherlands, the Studentenreisproduct system provides for free public transportation for students who don’t live near the university or college they attend.

Unfortunately, large cities, by and large, have not adopted the model. Portland, Oregon tried a version of this for a while with its “Fareless Square” in parts of downtown. The problem: the area had rapidly gentrified, and thanks to rising rents and costs, the people most in need weren’t using the programme, because the area had become unaffordable.

Tallinn, Estonia. Photo by Ben Mack.

Free higher education and vocational training

It seems like a simple solution, and it really is. After all, the more education or training a person has, the more opportunities they usually have. But, as many of us know all too well, education can be unaffordable for a great many people, and even if we can afford it often have to take out loans to the tune of tens of thousands (or more) of dollars that we end up paying off for years, if not decades.

Enter Germany. Higher education is free for European Union residents, and still relatively affordable (at least compared to New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the US) for just about everyone else. A number of other countries offer somewhat similar schemes, with drastically reduced rates.

Students at Linnaeus University (Linnéuniversitetet) in Växjö, Sweden. Photo by Ben Mack.

Gender equality and paying women and men the same damn amount for the same damn work

Fact: women around the world are paid less than men for the exact same work.

Another fact: That’s not acceptable, at all.

Fact #3: Paying women less for the same work can worsen cycles of poverty and inequality, since women are usually engaged in far more unpaid work (housecleaning, taking care of family members, etc.) and emotional labour than men, and it's usually a lot more expensive to be a woman than a man.

Fact #4: Iceland is a nation that’s taking steps to fix this, with actual, enforceable legislation.

It’s illegal to pay men more than women in Iceland – the first country in the world to pass such legislation. Employers must show that their pay management system complies with a national equal pay standard, and that men are not paid more than women for the same work.

And guess what? The vast majority of people think it’s awesome (including Bernie Sanders!) – as they well should.

But it also raises the serious question as to why the hell this hasn’t already been a thing in every other nation on earth for a very, very long time (as in, since the beginning).

Check out this podcast with Dignity’s Miranda Hitchings and Jacinta Gulasekharam on periods at work and equality:

Listen to this podcast with Wā Collective’s Olie Body on period poverty, menstruation and social enterprise:

Universal Basic Income

No, it’s not communism (sorry, Sean Hannity). But Universal Basic Income (UBI) does provide that everyone gets at least a certain minimum amount of money.

The idea has been floated (and tried) in many places at many points in history and, unless something dramatic happens up to and including the end of humanity as we know it, is poised to spread.

One of the more interesting examples of UBI comes from the southern African nation of Namibia. In 2008 and 2009, a pair of villages (Otjievero and Omitara) experiencing significant poverty tried it out. In short, people living in the villages who participated in a pilot project were given $100 Namibian dollars (about NZ$12). During the course of the pilot project, child malnutrition rates and crime fell, school attendance rose, and immigration increased.

Free or subsidised housing

Public housing is a hot topic around the world – including, of course, right here in Aotearoa.

With news that the number of people seeking housing assistance by moving into public housing in the Land of the Long White Cloud has risen by 26 percent to 7,890 – and with the average wait time about 64 days – it’s clear there is a serious need.

Unsurprisingly, there are a number of different public housing models around the world. In Scandinavia – where the cost of living is among the highest in the world, and there’s a serious housing crisis made worse by fierce competition for the few affordable sublets and flatshares available – one solution has been the idea of coliving. It’s pretty similar to how it sounds: a number of people live in a space together, and share things like a kitchen, living room, chores, etc. Not only can it help get people into housing, but it’s also an ideal solution for young people looking to start out on their own. The idea can also work for families – lending truth to the adage that it takes a village to raise a child.

Toilets and access to sanitation

Toilets are a human right – but something folks in highly developed nations like New Zealand often take for granted.

That is not the case in India. In 2011, according to census figures, 53 percent of households in the world’s second-most populous nation did not have a toilet. That’s more than 600 million people.

Study upon study has shown not having access to a toilet is a serious health risk, of course, and there are a number of government initiatives underway to urgently fix the issue – including an ambitious plan to install 75 million toilets by 2019. By having access to sanitation and clean water, people can be healthier.

New Delhi, India. Photo by Ben Mack.

Sustainable development

In 1981, about 88 percent of people living in China were in poverty. By 2012, it was about 6.5 percent. Translation: China’s success in lifting people out of poverty is the largest of its kind in recorded history, and probably won’t ever again be repeated on such a scale. One could almost describe it as a modern miracle.

Much of China’s success can be attributed to government initiatives and massive spending on infrastructure and development – not to mention the nation opening itself up further to the world and foreign business and investment. Those initiatives are continuing today, too, with things such as the ambitious One Belt One Road Initiative. However, China’s dizzying development has also exacerbated some serious problems (high amounts of pollution, for one) – emphasising the importance of sustainable development that isn’t just a quick fix.

Chiwan, China. Photo by Ben Mack.

Decriminalising drugs

As Robert Putnam outlines in his 2015 book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, and as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) board member and former Chicago prosecutor Dr. Inge Fryklund has also explained, decriminalising drugs can help drastically reduce social inequality. The reason? The majority of people in prisons – particularly in nations with a vast prison-industrial complex like the United States where incarcerating people is big business – are there for low-level drugs offences. And, as is well-known, prisons disproportionately affect the poor and people who are not white – including in New Zealand.  

By decriminalising drugs, it’s argued, systematic discrimination against these groups can be reduced – which can also reduce poverty, since having a criminal record can drastically reduce employment and education opportunities, not to mention harms families when family members are locked away.

And guess what? Decriminalising drugs has worked in Portugal, where among other things HIV infection rates and drug-related crime have plummeted – raising the question why it hasn’t been copied worldwide.

Encouraging savings

Sam Stubbs, CEO of Simplicity KiwiSaver, claimed in Idealog’s most recent Design Issue that encouraging savings can reduce poverty rates. “Saving is the result of a very primal fear, poverty,” he writes. “It’s why Third World countries, without social welfare safety nets, have savings rates far higher than we do. Much of their wealth gets wasted with corruption. But where savings get invested sensibly, in democratic and accountable societies, they can leapfrog nations that have spent and not saved.”

He goes on to point to Singapore as an example. “Seventy years ago it was a Third World swamp, and New Zealand looked down on it,” writes Stubbs. “After generations of saving and wise domestic investments, who’s on top now?”

Visit Raffles Place or Sentosa Island today, and it’s hard to argue with him.

Singapore. Photo by Ben Mack.

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