IN SEPTEMBER 2000 the heads of 147 governments pledged that they would halve the proportion of people on the Earth living in the direst poverty by 2015, using the poverty rate in 1990 as a baseline. It was the first of a litany of worthy aims enshrined in the United Nations “millennium development goals” (MDGs). Many of these aims—such as cutting maternal mortality by three quarters and child mortality by two thirds—have not been met. But the goal of halving poverty has been. Indeed, it was achieved five years early.
In 1990, 43% of the population of developing countries lived in extreme poverty (then defined as subsisting on $1 a day); the absolute number was 1.9 billion people. By 2000 the proportion was down to a third. By 2010 it was 21% (or 1.2 billion; the poverty line was then $1.25, the average of the 15 poorest countries’ own poverty lines in 2005 prices, adjusted for differences in purchasing power). The global poverty rate had been cut in half in 20 years.
That raised an obvious question. If extreme poverty could be halved in the past two decades, why should the other half not be got rid of in the next two? If 21% was possible in 2010, why not 1% in 2030?
Why not indeed? In April at a press conference during the spring meeting of the international financial institutions in Washington, DC, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, scrawled the figure “2030” on a sheet of paper, held it up and announced, “This is it. This is the global target to end poverty.” He was echoing Barack Obama who, in February, promised that “the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades.”
This week, that target takes its first step towards formal endorsement as an aim of policy round the world. The leaders of Britain, Indonesia and Liberia are due to recommend to the UN a list of post-2015 MDGs. It will be headed by a promise to end extreme poverty by 2030.
There is a lot of debate about what exactly counts as poverty and how best to measure it. But by any measure, the eradication of $1.25-a-day poverty would be an astonishing achievement. Throughout history, dire poverty has been a basic condition of the mass of mankind. Thomas Malthus, a British clergyman who founded the science of demography, wrote in 1798 that it was impossible for people to “feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and [their] families” and that “no possible form of society could prevent the almost constant action of misery upon a great part of mankind.” For most countries, poverty was not even a problem; it was a plain, unchangeable fact.
You know what I would like to see? Stephen Harper and the premiers making the same pledge to radically improve conditions on Canadian reserves. It’s not any of their faults that it has gotten this bad but it would be interesting to work with First Nations leaders and come up with a baseline that by 2030 (or 2020) that all First Nations would be at.
I can’t imagine how hard it would be to navigate the different groups but can it be any harder than cutting extreme poverty around the world in half?