Few people are aware of perhaps one of the greatest achievements in world history – the global decline of world poverty. Yes, there is much to do, and development is very patchy. But in the past 25 years, significant progress has been made in reducing extreme poverty and many of its consequences.
For example, one of the Millennium Development Goals - to halve the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015 – was met earlier than had been hoped. This meant that by the end of last year, 702m people lived on less than $1.90 a day, compared with just under 2bn in 1990, according to the World Bank. Given that the global population has expanded significantly in that time, this is a considerable change for the better.
Last year, this meant that less than 10% of the world’s population now live in extreme poverty, compared to 37% in 1990. So we can give thanks that a much smaller proportion of the world’s people have to cope with this desperate level of income.
Obviously, that still leaves hundreds of millions of people in extreme poverty, which should not leave us resting on our laurels – in prayer or in giving. There is much to do. The World Bank’s current goal is for no-one to be living below $1.90/day by the year 2030, but could that target be reached earlier, too?
Other ways of measuring poverty also show progress – it is not just a trick of the statistics. For example, instruments like the Human Development Index record a wide number of factors related to basic quality of life - access to education, clean water and other amenities, for example. The HDI suggests that nearly all countries saw improvements of some kind in the past 25 years – though there is a lot of variation between countries.
Another, perhaps clearer, illustration of the global march away from extreme poverty, is the success in battling serious disease seen in the health statistics. For example, the number of children younger than 5 who die before their fifth birthday has halved since 1990 – this figure is now 43 deaths for every 1000 children born alive. Deaths from malaria, Tuberculosis and HIV have all fallen substantially in the last ten to 25 year
Why has poverty reduced?
To what can we credit these trends? It’s not always easy to identify the causes. Perhaps most importantly for us who are ‘on the ground’ – has the worldwide efforts in aid and development, and our giving – made a difference to alleviating poverty?
The change in living standards is usually credited to economic growth. The progress has been seen mainly in China, and the East and South Asian regions, as well as North Africa. So the extraordinary economic boom in China of the last 25 years has been one of the factors that is credited with increasing the income of people living in these countries. As well as the Chinese population, other countries benefit from the ‘spillover’ of this wealth into countries that have sold their resources to China.
Aid sometimes gets a bad press. Academics such as Dambisa Moyo, the author of the bestselling book “Dead Aid”, have argued that government-to-government aid in Africa has done more harm than good, with political ulterior motives that lead to poor governments being propped up and economic growth stifled. Certainly, parts of Africa are not benefiting from poverty reduction as quickly as other countries.
However one of the key drivers of economic growth is in fact aid and developmental assistance, research suggests, though varied findings show different kinds of aid has different effects in different places.
This means that our giving does matter. It matters to whom and how we give aid, and there is much to learn: but efforts to tackle poverty can work.
How can we get rid of poverty – for good?
These statistics give us hope that the lives of the world’s poor can improve. So how can we work harder to truly make poverty history?
One approach might be to promote economic growth. Certainly, the recent downturn in the Chinese economy, and the reduction in the oil price, may also affect how many come out of poverty in the next few years, so it’s an important focus for prayer.
But economic growth is not the whole picture. Many attribute the decrease in poverty to economic growth, but then point out that in future this link between economic growth and poverty reduction may weaken – so targeted aid programmes and policy will be needed.
So what can we do? We can remind our politicians that global poverty is a priority in our lives, we can give to charities who tackle worldwide poverty, we can choose to buy goods from schemes such as Fairtrade that seek to pay a fair price to the producers. Importantly, for Christians – we can pray.
However it is done, the good news is that with more effort, extreme poverty could soon exist only in the history books.