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Is an average Ukrainian doing any better today, given the context of ongoing economic reform? This question has been raised in public media and social media in Ukraine, yielding widely different answers and interpretations. Some sources claim that we are experiencing the best improvement in social welfare there could be, under the circumstances. Yet the real impact of austerity and lack of public accountability on the vast majority of Ukraine’s population is underestimated.

As Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and human rights Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky said after his recent visit to Ukraine, “The economic trends, conditions and challenges of a country are also determining factors in the protection and realization of human rights. A healthy economy must prioritize the well-being of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society, not disregard them.”

Let’s take a look at one crucial statistic that could be used to estimate socioeconomic well-being in a given country – its poverty rate. Recently, a variety of sources cited that the subsistence minimum in Ukraine is increased by 77 UAH (less than $3), now amounting to 1777 (around $68) per person. While the trend towards growth of social standards is optimistic, putting it into a broader socioeconomic perspective is useful yet difficult due to outdated statistics on poverty rate, employment, migration, etc.

A discrepancy exists between media consensus on poverty and the situation on the ground. For example, in December 2017, a variety of Ukrainian media outlets simultaneously published a report suggesting the that poverty rate in Ukraine is currently at the level of 12%. Several authoritative sources, including the UNDP, cite higher numbers – ranging from 60 to 90 percent.

Since statistics impact public opinion and policy in powerful ways, an under- or over-estimate of poverty can lead to confusion about the real need. To talk about poverty rates with any certainty, we must first answer the question – what are the factors that impact poverty in the unique context of Ukraine?

Absence of poverty would indicate full “access to necessary goods and services,” including shelter, utilities, food, clothing, medicine, hygiene, etc. Dr. Oleksandr Potapenko, citing data of the World Economic Forum, states that people who spend 60 or more percent of their income on basic needs (food, utility bills, housing, clothing), can be considered poor. The EU, in turn, uses 9 non-monetary criteria that can be found via this link, and that include inability to pay unexpected financial expenses and household debt. If any of the 4 in 9 factors are met, a person or a household meets the ‘deprivation’ criteria.

All the while, independent analytical agencies stray from the above mentioned definitions of poverty and use subjective self-evaluation as a research basis. For example, the 12% estimate was obtained via analysis of self-reported measures.

In the recent years, Ukraine has gone through major crises that often weren’t reflected in the calculations of international or domestic institutions. Some of them merit a closer look:

Neal Walker, United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Ukraine, stated during the presentation of the latest Human Development Report that about 60% of Ukraine’s population is now living under the poverty line. The current increase in the subsistence minimum does not do much to stabilize the economy, and the need for better social policy is eminent as ever.

Going back to the assessment of Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, “Sustainable public finances must be ensured in Ukraine, not exclusively for access to international financing or servicing of debt, but crucially to guarantee social justice for all, and to comply with human rights obligations. Regardless of the macroeconomic choices to be made, human rights should be at the centre. Economic inequality and the reduction of income of the poor segments of the population hamper domestic demand, sustainable development and growth.”