Ending Extreme Poverty in Our Time?

President Obama wants to save the world. But can he, really? 


Late in his State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama made a bold claim: "In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades." The question naturally becomes: Can we really end extreme poverty in the next two decades? Can the world collectively achieve a bare minimum standard of living embraced by every country around the globe?

The answer, by and large, is yes.

While some may not have seen the president’s remarks coming, they are built upon ongoing discussions with the United Nations and all of its member states regarding how best to follow up on the existing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which run through 2015. The MDGs are broadly viewed as a success, and they represent a very rare creature in international diplomatic circles — one in which sweeping rhetoric was actually accompanied by practical, ambitious, and very measurable goals and targets to tackle key elements of extreme poverty: including reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, and reducing hunger. Not only did the world commit to some very big-ticket items in the MDGs, it committed itself to measure its progress toward these goals using hard and publicly accessible data.

The Millennium Declaration, signed in September 2000, included eight goals and some 21 targets and was agreed upon by all U.N. member states. The first goal was to halve the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day, the widely accepted mark at the time for extreme poverty. (The extreme poverty level was subsequently adjusted by the World Bank to $1.25 in 2005.)

The world has done well in meeting this broad goal. The number of people living on less than $1.25 per day was roughly halved between 2000 and 2010, and 2012 marked the first year that both the absolute number of people living in extreme poverty and rates of poverty fell in every developing region, including in sub-Saharan Africa. Other goals, particularly reducing maternal mortality, have been harder to meet, but have also shown significant progress.

But it is also important to note that progress toward these broad goals was very uneven, not only across regions and countries, but within individual countries themselves. Enormous economic gains in China and India accounted for much of the reduction in the overall extreme poverty numbers, while Africa has lagged. Even in countries that made significant gains, traditionally disenfranchised populations were often left behind simply by dint of gender, ethnicity, or geographic location.

The profile of where the poorest of the poor reside has also shifted considerably. Whereas in 1990, 80 percent of the world’s poor lived in stable, low-income countries, today roughly half of the world’s poor live in stable middle-income countries, while 41 percent of the poorest of the poor live in fragile and conflict-affected states. This changing locus of poverty necessitates a two-pronged effort to assist the marginalized poor in middle income states while helping fragile and conflict affected states put in place the basic systems that will help break repeated cycles of crisis and violence.

By 2015, roughly 1 billion people will be living in extreme poverty. President Obama, and the U.N. High-Level Panel co-chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to help shape the initial contours of the next round of Millennium Development Goals, all seem inclined to push that number down to zero by 2030. It sounds unrealistic, even outlandish, to many skeptics. But the power of such a pledge to end extreme poverty lies precisely in its ambitious scope and the constellation of outcomes that would have to be achieved to make such a goal a reality.

Many respected analysts think we can get there. For those interested in crunching the numbers, recent articles by Clare Melamed, Andy Sumner, or Charles Kenny all make a compelling case that this is in the realm of the possible. Sumner, at the Institute of Development Studies, finds that many of the world’s extreme poor live in countries where the cost of ending poverty is not prohibitive, and Melamed at the Overseas Development Institute notes that eradicating extreme poverty may be more likely this time around because the conversation has expanded to more broadly include the enabling environment that makes lasting development possible. Kenny, of the Center for Global Development, argues that setting such an aspirational goal ultimately has some real power in shaping the effort to try and achieve it.

Ending extreme poverty would require far more than simply increasing national GDPs, and part of the attraction of setting a "zero goal" on extreme poverty is the recognition that the world needs to reach those populations that were left behind over the last 15 years. Getting to zero would require redoubled efforts to end preventable childhood deaths and promote universal literacy; it would require the international community to develop ways to better connect traditionally marginalized populations to modern infrastructure, social services, and governance. It would suggest that individuals, regardless of their race, color, or creed should be allowed to hold and inherit land, access financial services, and enjoy a basic legal identity. It would require public-private and other cross-border partnerships on a scale that would dwarf traditional forms of foreign assistance, while recognizing that poverty reduction and environmental sustainability should go hand in hand.

It might be that the world tries and fails to reach the goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030. Even that would not be such a bad thing, because setting specific goals has real benefits. If 2030 arrives and there are 150 million people living in extreme poverty because their countries are wracked by violence or extreme discrimination, instead of 1 billion, these isolated cases will stand in a very, very bright public spotlight that will make getting to zero on extreme poverty all the more likely not long after.

Ending extreme poverty was not the front-page headline from Obama’s speech, but given that such a push would change — and save — more lives than any other thing he discussed, maybe it should have been.

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