Human Rights and Poverty Reduction Strategies

Read section III of this guide, which focuses on how one state, Canada, actually tries to incorporate the human rights law you have been learning about in this course in its programs to alleviate poverty. How well do you think the guidelines here meet global justice requirements as you understand them now?

III. The Human Rights Approach in Action

Now that you are familiar with the idea behind the human rights approach, it is time to translate theory into practice. The remainder of this Guide addresses two key questions:

  1. How should you develop the plan to address poverty?
  2. What should the plan incorporate?

These questions are important because the human rights approach is about both process and content. In other words, it’s not just about what goes into the poverty reduction plan, but it’s also about how it’s developed.

The following sections discuss the features a poverty reduction plan must have in order to be compatible with a human rights approach, as identified by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This part of the Guide teaches you about:

  1. Identifying people living in poverty
  2. Incorporating international human rights standards
  3. Consulting people who live in poverty
  4. Promoting substantive equality and non-discrimination
  5. Setting goals and timelines
  6. Monitoring progress
  7. Ensuring accountability

As you read through these sections, you’ll learn how to develop a poverty reduction plan taking a human rights approach and view examples of success.

1. Identifying People Living in Poverty

Who are the people living in poverty in your province or community? At first glance, this might seem like a simple question. Surely, if poverty is about income, a person or family earning below a certain amount can be categorized as ‘poor’, right? Unfortunately, poverty is much more complicated than drawing a line in the sand. While living in poverty does mean living low income, it means so much more than this as well. This section discusses the official measures of poverty and attempts to shed some light on how diverse the experience of poverty can be.

In Canada, the question of who is poor is most often answered with reference to one of three economic measures: the Low-Income Cut off (After-Tax) (LICO-AT), the Low Income Measure (LIM) or the Market Basket Measure (MBM).

  • LICO-AT - The LICO-AT is the level at which a household spends 63.6% of its household income on food, shelter and clothing.
  • LIM - The LIM is a relative measure of low-income set at 50% of the median income. If household income is at 50% or lower than the median income, that household is said to be living on a low income.
  • MBM - The MBM measures the ability of a household to purchase a basket of essential goods including housing, nutritious food, transportation, personal care and household items.

Generally, the LICO-AT and the LIM are the preferred measures because they recognize that poverty is not merely about income level, but is about the ability of individuals and families to access basic goods and services. However, even these measures fail to capture the full picture when it comes to poverty.

Poverty takes many different forms. It may mean being homeless and living in a shelter, on the streets, or doubled up with friends. It may mean receiving social assistance, working three part-time jobs, relying on a food bank to survive, or falling deep into debt to pay for much-needed medication. It may mean chronic unemployment or underemployment, being unable to locate affordable child-care services, pay tuition or access help for addiction issues.

All of the above scenarios form part of the portrait of what ‘living in poverty’ looks like. How then, will you identify who is living in poverty in your province, territory or municipality when designing a poverty reduction plan? How will you identify the signs of poverty as a frontline worker?

The human rights approach requires you to:

  • see poverty in broader terms than just income;
  • respect the dignity of people living in poverty;
  • recognize the vast range of experiences of people living in poverty;
  • identify the groups within your province or community who are especially and/or uniquely impacted by poverty;

2. Incorporating International Human Rights Standards

Part II of this Guide presented you with a list of human rights that are important for people living in poverty. These rights are highlighted because they deal mainly with the essentials of life – food, housing, work – i.e., the things people living in poverty often struggle to obtain and maintain. At the international level, there has been a lot of discussion about these rights, what they mean for people living in poverty and how they can be realized in practice. The list below provides more detail about some of these human rights.

Right to Work

Everyone has the right to work and secure a livelihood for themselves. Under international law, the right to work means the right to decent[1] work, which means it must be safe and fairly paid. Wages are an especially important consideration for policymakers because many people living in poverty are employed (sometimes in two or three jobs) and still struggle to make ends meet. Moreover, the right to work includes the ability to access assistance – such as unemployment insurance – when a person is not able to work or when jobs are scarce.[2]

Right to Adequate Food

At a bare minimum, the right to food means freedom from hunger and should be understood as the right to feed oneself rather than to be fed.[3] Food should be accessible, which means that a person or family is able to purchase what they need to eat without having to sacrifice other essentials.[4] The right to food includes being able to afford food that is nutritious or necessary to maintain overall good health. Food banks should be understood as stop-gaps on the path to realizing the right to food, rather than as solutions to food security problems. Additionally, the right to food means having reliable access to safe, clean drinking water.[5][6]

Right to Housing

The right to housing is more than just the right to have a roof over your head.7 It also means living in a place with adequate infrastructure, such as functioning heat and plumbing, and having legal rights as a tenant, such as protection against eviction. The right to housing includes the ability to secure housing that is affordable and accessible, which is especially crucial for older people and people with disabilities. The affordability of housing should be a key concern for policymakers as people living in poverty often spend a large share of their income on rent and housing-related costs, often at the expense of other essentials.

The human rights approach requires that poverty reduction plans be centered on the realization of the rights listed above, as well as other rights like the right to education, personal security and privacy, equal access to justice, and civil and political rights.

This means that a poverty reduction plan must:

  • make specific reference to human rights;
  • articulate goals and standards in terms of human rights;
  • ensure those responsible for implementing and executing the plan are trained in human rights;

Make Specific Reference to Human Rights

A poverty reduction plan that takes a human rights approach will expressly refer to human rights in the text of the plan itself. Consider the example of Quebec’s “Solidarity and Social Inclusion Action Plan”, which refers to international human rights in its opening chapter as a guiding principle. It states, “[t]he Adoption of the Government Action Plan for Solidarity and Social Inclusion contributes specifically to implementation of the rights enshrined in the Quebec Charter and in various international instruments that Quebec lives by.”

Articulate Goals and Standards in Terms of Human Rights

Poverty reduction plans generally set goals and standards for addressing issues like unemployment, homelessness, education, etc., but rarely frame these social ills in terms of human rights. The human rights approach requires that these objectives are framed as human rights issues. For example, the Ontario government’s commitment to ending homelessness in the province as a long-term goal could be articulated as a step towards realizing the right to adequate housing for Ontario’s homeless population.

Ensure Those Responsible for Implementing and Executing the Plan are Trained in Human Rights

Poverty reduction is a huge undertaking that involves policymakers from different levels of government and frontline workers across various sectors. All of these actors should receive some form of human rights training prior to the implementation of the poverty reduction plan.

3. Consulting People Who Live in Poverty

The human rights approach requires approach requires he human rights approach requires that people living in poverty be consulted about that people living poverty reduction plans. People living in poverty are often excluded from public processes due to social discrimination. Therefore, policymakers must take proactive steps to ensure that they have the opportunity to participate in the planning, development and execution of poverty reduction in their province, territory or municipality. While there are many forms this participation could take, there are a few general principles that should guide the consultation process.

Policymakers should build time and flexibility into the process. Any constraints to participation should be discussed with the participants ahead of time and possible solutions should be sought by organizers. Resulting mechanisms from these discussions could take the form of, for example, reimbursement of the costs of participation, including childcare and travel, or compensation for any loss of income.

Participation of People in Poverty Should:

Be Active and Informed.

Because people in poverty often experience intersectional discrimination and are left out of public processes, policymakers must take proactive steps to ensure participation. This includes:

  • the opportunity be informed in an accessible way about the process and their role within it. Policymakers should provide complete, up-to-date and easily understandable information. Written materials, which could exclude people whose reading skills are weak, should be supplemented with other approaches. The language used should be understood by all participants, especially the most marginalized and disadvantaged;
  • the opportunity and support to actively contribute experiences, ideas and opinions;
  • the opportunity and support to actively contribute in decision-making;

Occur at All Stages of the Process.

Because people living in poverty have the best knowledge of their needs and the needs of their communities, policymakers must involve them in every stage of the process. The process often takes time, and so it is important to commit to maintaining relations with the people, group and/or community on a long-term basis. To this end, policymakers should create and support regular opportunities for the participation of people affected by planned projects or services. This should begin well in advance, with ongoing consultation. This includes:

  • the opportunity and support to identify goals, targets and priority issues at the outset of the process;
  • the opportunity and support to discuss and decide on policy that affects them; • the opportunity and support to participate in monitoring and reviewing progress;

Be Meaningful and Effective.

Because the concerns of people living in poverty often go unaddressed, policymakers must ensure that their participation is both meaningful and effective. This includes:

  • the opportunity and support to attend specific events, forums and discussion groups that are accessible;
  • the opportunity and support to feel empowered to participate and that their participation in the process is valued and respected;
  • A comprehensive overview of the process and a discussion of how their input will be used.

The Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction in Hamilton, Ontario has developed methods of community consultation that may serve as models for other areas. While the Roundtable brings together people from various sectors, those with lived experience - i.e. those who live or have lived in poverty - form a core part of their efforts. The Roundtable ensures that people who live in poverty are included at the stage of decision-making and have a direct say in policy. They are the ones who identify which issues are important to them and their well-being. The Roundtable takes positive steps to eliminate barriers to participation by providing supports such as food, transportation and daycare services for participants, as well as hosting discussions in accessible locations.

4. Promoting Substantive Equality and Non-Discrimination

Poverty carries a heavy stigma. People living in poverty are often viewed as uneducated, lazy "cheats" taking advantage of the system, a stereotype that is deeply embedded in our culture. Because many poor people are also from marginalized groups, they face discrimination not only on account of being poor, but also because they are, for instance, single mothers, Aboriginal and/or people with disabilities. A poor person in Canada today might experience multiple forms of discrimination at the same time, making the experience of living in poverty extremely difficult.

The human rights approach requires poverty reduction plans to reflect the principles of equality and non-discrimination, often called a pillar of international human rights law. These twin principles should guide your poverty reduction plan and must be reflected in every aspect of the overall strategy.

In practical terms, this means that the plan should contain:

  • an express commitment to the principles of equality and non-discrimination;
  • concrete, deliberate and targeted measures to eliminate discrimination and pursue equality;
  • a means of addressing the discrimination faced by those living in poverty and special consideration for marginalized groups;
  • an avenue for those who experience discrimination to access a remedy;

5. Setting Goals and Timelines

Poverty reduction strategies set goals and establish timelines for reaching those goals. This is an essential part of any plan. It is likely that this stage of the process will require a great deal of time and discussion. Remember that setting goals must occur in consultation with people living in poverty who are in the best position to identify their needs. While the specifics of these goals will vary from community to community and from province to province, the human rights approach mandates that certain things must be contained in this part of the plan.

When it comes to setting goals and timelines, a poverty reduction plan should:

  • identify immediate, short-term and long-term goals;
  • set specific goals in relation to marginalized groups;
  • be reflected in budgeting;
  • engage others;

Identify Immediate, Short-term and Long-term Goals

Poverty reduction is an ambitious goal that can only be achieved with time. The human rights approach acknowledges this reality, which is why obligations of this sort are subject to what is called “progressive realization”.[7] This means that while certain obligations should be fulfilled immediately, other goals require more planning, time and resources to accomplish. Poverty reduction plans must distinguish between three types of human rights obligations: immediate obligations, short-term targets and long-term goals.

Immediate Obligations Short-Term Targets Long-Term goals

There are certain steps that must be taken immediately in order to ensure the human rights of people living in poverty. These obligations pertain to existing policies and programs, and should be listed as commitments in the poverty reduction plan.

Such obligations include:

  • eliminating discrimination in the administration of the programs and policies currently in place
  • meeting basic and emergency needs – such as homeless shelters
  • ensuring the full participation of stakeholders in the poverty reduction process

The plan should contain a set of tangible targets that can be met in the short term (from a few months to a few years). These commitments should be concrete and realistic. Short-term targets should be regularly updated. As earlier commitments are met, new ones should be put in place to respond to identified needs, adjust to changing circumstances and ensure ongoing progress.

Examples of short-term commitments

  • increasing the minimum wage by a particular percentage
  • putting in place a new community living program within one year

The plan should express its long term goals as a commitment to realize human rights rather than as a policy commitment to reducing poverty.

The established timeline for the elimination of poverty should be realistic in light of resources and other challenges but it should also reflect the fact that eliminating poverty is a human rights imperative to be achieved without unreasonable delay.

Set Specific Goals in Relation to Marginalized Groups

As was mentioned in section iv, people living in poverty are often from marginalized groups. While setting general goals and timelines for the population as a whole is an important way to assess overall progress, it is also important to evaluate the progress of particular groups. A poverty reduction plan should include both broad poverty reduction targets and specific targets in relation to the groups that are most affected by poverty — Aboriginal people, people with disabilities, older persons, youth, children, racialized groups, newcomers, single mothers. In some cases, these targets may relate to particular sectors, such as access to employment for Aboriginal people or supports for community living for people with disabilities.

Be Reflected in Budgeting

The poverty reduction plan must be properly resourced. Federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments must set aside resources in their budgets for the purpose of addressing poverty. Under both Canadian and international law, budgetary constraints are not a valid excuse for failing to eliminate poverty and realize human rights.[8]

Engage Others

While your poverty reduction plan might centre on a particular community or province, addressing poverty is a responsibility shared by all levels of government. The goals and timelines identified in the plan should, wherever possible, engage with other levels of government, as well as with other stakeholders.

6. Monitoring Progress

After you have settled on the overall goals of the plan, how will you determine if they’re effective in addressing poverty? How will you verify that implementation is going according to plan and targets are met according to timelines?

It is important to develop a method or strategy that you can use to evaluate progress on an ongoing basis. Normally such a strategy will include gathering both quantitative and qualitative information about poverty in your province or community. This might mean reviewing statistics in combination with a more qualitative assessment through questionnaires or focus groups. It is especially crucial when monitoring progress to be mindful of marginalized groups and their unique experiences with poverty. For instance, low income measures that do not include disability related expenses will not be useful in assessing progress in reducing poverty among people with disabilities.

Moreover, there should be mechanisms in place to assess the impact of new programs or policies, and there needs to be a means of ensuring that budgets properly reflect the commitments contained in the poverty reduction plan.

7. Ensuring Accountability

The human rights approach demands accountability for the commitments laid out in poverty reduction strategies, particularly because rights are illusory if no one can be held to account. Accountability is an essential element of a human rights based approach to addressing poverty and the least likely characteristic to appear in any poverty reduction strategy.

Remember, the implementation of human rights is a legal obligation. The rights of people living in poverty can only be realized if they have a way to hold government authorities accountable for the effective implementation of the poverty plan. What mechanisms can be incorporated in the plan to allow for this?

Your poverty reduction plan should establish both internal and external mechanisms for accountability. An internal mechanism — like an ombudsperson — is a useful way for local or provincial governments to review their own progress. It is important to stress that there’s no weakness in admitting the shortcomings of a plan or its implementation.

An external mechanism — like an independent committee — is also necessary to provide fair and objective assessments of progress that can be shared with the public. Both the internal and external mechanisms should review the plan periodically on a basis laid out clearly in the plan itself.

Lastly, there must be a procedure available to individuals to bring complaints regarding either the failure to properly implement the plan or a particular decision that affects them. These kinds of procedures ensure that the voices of people living in poverty are heard.


[1] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Principles and Guidelines for a Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategies” Available here: “The Role of Local and Subnational Governments with Respect to the Right to Adequate Housing.” Available here: at para 112.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid at 132.

[4] Ibid at 135.

[5] Ibid at 130.

[6] Ibid at 156.

[7] For further information, see the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Fact Sheet No. 33 titled “Frequently Asked Questions on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” Available here: at pg 13

[8] Newfoundland (Treasury Board) v. N.A.P.E., [2004] 3 S.C.R. 381, 2004 SCC 66 at para 72.

Source: Canada Without Poverty,
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Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2021, 3:12 PM