The World Bank recently published an estimate according to which, due to the crisis caused by the Covid-19 epidemic, an additional 125-327,000 people in Serbia could fall into poverty. Roughly speaking, this means that potentially one in eight people could fall to about 400 dinars of average daily consumption, which is currently only the case for one in fourteen.1 In any case, we are threatened by a significant reduction of the middle class, while the most vulnerable are the people who are employed illegally (who make up almost one fifth of all employed) and the self-employed. UN experts are surprised by this, as they call it, tsunami of poverty and call upon the governments to urgently “dramatically” expand social safety nets.
What has the government in Serbia done to ensure that the position of the poor does not worsen and that their number does not increase? Practically nothing. It has not fulfilled the promised measures to reduce poverty, including the main ones: increasing the amount of cash social assistance and removing restrictions to the right to it (e.g. if a person owns property above a certain value or refuses to participate in public works), as well as abolishing the limit of its duration to a maximum of nine months a year. The political abuse of the poor has continued and even intensified. Social assistance is paid more often to party members who are not poor, so that it can be returned to the party coffers. And even more systematically, the poor who are not members are listed, so that their welfare can be held hostage to ensure their votes. Due to such criminal acts in our captive welfare state, almost half of the poor don’t receive aid. Moreover, in recent years there has been a noticeable decrease in the number of beneficiaries of the main social benefits, like child allowance and cash social assistance, while the poverty rate has remained unchanged.
Okay, but has the government at least done anything about poverty this year, in the midst of the crisis caused by the Covid-19 epidemic? Again, almost nothing. The fact that they extended the payment of social benefits to users by three months, without the obligation to re-submit documentation, won’t change anything. They could’ve easily done that back in 2012, because these people certainly cannot escape poverty while they remain in power. The fact that it distributed 100 euros to every adult was not meant to reduce poverty (although it probably had positive effects in that sense), but to secure the votes of the undecided, and cement the support of the already loyal. The rough calculation is clear: 600 million euros, which was the amount spent on this measure, was enough to pay out social assistance to all those who already receive it (260,000 poor), then to those who are poor, but do not receive social assistance (240,000), and even those who will fall into poverty in the coming period (let it be the average estimate of the World Bank of about 230,000). And not only would that be enough until the end of this year, but also until the end of next year!
Such behavior is the complete opposite of the most important duty of any government – to eliminate those injustices which could clearly be eliminated – remediable injustices, as defined by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Is there a greater injustice than the fact that tens of thousands of children across Serbia will go to bed hungry tonight? No. Is “our” government interested in starting to solve this problem as soon as possible? No, because their children are settled and tucked away with full stomachs. If the existence of poverty is the greatest injustice in a society that has the means to eradicate it, then the mystery of its persistence is revealed with surgical precision by Professor Philip Alston, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. “The failure to take appropriate steps to eliminate poverty is a political choice,” he said. For the umpteenth time, the authorities in Serbia have again made a choice that will cost thousands of lives. Between tackling poverty and their own survival, they chose the latter.
With all this in mind, and witnessing the increasingly open abuse that SNS is enacting over the part of the population that does not enjoy party protection – whom they have started literally treating like animals – it is simply unbelievable that most of the opposition is playing the nationalism card. This is not only (as always) ideologically insane, but it is also deeply immoral, because it neglects the main suffering of the Serbian society, which, ostensibly, everyone cares about. True statesmen and good strategists should prioritize poverty eradication, not resolving the status of Kosovo. As we have seen from the beginning of the rule of SNS, insisting on the Kosovo issue makes it impossible to work on poverty reduction, because it allows Vucic to postpone both issues forever (the kingdom of heaven). Therefore, the most important questions for the authorities this fall (and reasons for protests) should be: will the new government set as its backbone the adoption and implementation of a new poverty reduction strategy (with measures such as tax policy reform, investment in social infrastructure and attracting socially responsible foreign investors)? Are they willing and able to include all of society in its preparation, as Djindjic managed to do in 2002? At its first session, will the new government initiate the process of amending the Law on Social Protection and other regulations, in order to increase social benefits and the number of beneficiaries? Will it, in the end, set as its main goal for Serbia to join the EU by the end of its mandate, so that we can use its funds to fight poverty?
The author is an associate of the Center for Democracy Foundation
Translated by Marijana Simic
- Note: the poverty line used in the World Bank’s assessment is slightly higher than the one that officially measures (absolute) poverty in Serbia. The first is 5.5 USD per day, while the second (for 2018) is 12,286 dinars per month, which means that, viewed according to the national poverty line, the number of poor in the coming period could increase slightly less than the World Bank estimates.