As of 4 October, 2015 the World Bank has announced that the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty (defined as less than $1.90 a day) has dipped below 10% for the first time. Specifically, the rate of extreme poverty decreased to 9.6% from 12.8% in 2012. However, what does this number mean? Is this one statistic enough to start patting ourselves on our collective backs? I think not.
Notably, the World Bank methodology does not account for the whole world and may very well exclude extremely impoverished areas. If a region has less than 60% of the population reporting, then that region is not included. These regions are often the ones suffering from “conflict and fragility”, conditions which naturally lead one to think of places containing a large number of people suffering from severe poverty. Ergo, the Middle East and North Africa, among others, are not part of this statistic. This is problematic because these are areas which very well may have increased the percentage of people living in extreme poverty. In addition, if 60% coverage within a region is necessary for inclusion in the statistic, those people reporting their situation are most likely living in or near urban areas. Rural areas are not only harder to reach due to infrastructural issues, but also more difficult to survey. This stems from the fact that as purchasing power is calculated nationally; with the recorded, rural wages, their purchasing power is often less than that of an individual living in or near an urban area. In turn, the people living in stated rural areas are often the some of the poorest as they rely heavily on agriculture, which can easily be disrupted by droughts, pests, and wildfires etc., and relief can often be delayed. Furthermore, it has been discovered that the average distance a family is located from clean drinking water is 6 km in Africa and Asia – hardly something that $1.90 a day can fix. The point being: even if only 9.6% of people are now living in extreme poverty it does not necessarily mean they are leading a safe and healthy life. Sadly, this is only one of the many issues with said number.
Geographically there has been a massive shift in where extremes poverty resides. In 1990, South East Asia accounted for roughly 50% of poverty and Sub-Saharan Africa approximately 15%. Twenty-five years later, these numbers have essentially flip-flopped, with poverty rates of near 12% for South East Asia and 50% for Sub-Saharan Africa. As the World Bank rightly states, the reduction in poverty can be primarily attributed to high growth rates in developing countries. This appears true for the ‘Asian Tiger’ nations, which have certainly raised the tide for all boats through the route of industrialization and total integration into global markets. In contrast, much of Sub-Saharan Africa lacks these factors, contributing to the region’s current larger poverty burden. This is not to suggest that the World Bank, along with developed nations, has not attempted to invest in order to cement a stronger industrial base, but it certainly seems to be the keystone issue. Unless this issue is fully addressed, the region is far from saved. While I am certainly not against charity, the parable of the man who was taught to fish comes to mind; in the regions that need it the most we should be fostering growth in the necessary economic and industrial areas. Just this has helped spring so many out of poverty worldwide and improved, in the long run, quality of life. The World Bank stated that countries with the highest rate of poverty are often those with an economy reliant on the export of commodities, not those with an industrial foundation, again suggesting that the key to lower rates of poverty is to work on industry and try to shift economies to be less focused on the export of raw goods.
So if this measure is somewhat misleading, how can it be adapted to help one better understand the true situation? One possibility would be for further qualitative and quantitative data regarding how the population lives. Making it above the extreme poverty line certainly does not mean one is then safe in all senses. The poverty statistic should not be presented alone. Rather, it should be accompanied by further detail, including statistics on each region (divided as well by rural and urban) for the average distance to clean water, schools, hospitals, ability to access the internet, ability to consistently put food on the table, how safe people feel in their region, etc. These are basic necessities for modern life. For as Maslow argued one can only reach the full human potential if certain needs are met previously: physiological needs (food, shelter, water, etc.) and safety needs (security, law, lack of constant fear, etc.). Money is simply the means to an end; to enjoy a life free from starvation and thirst, where people can hope to avoid violence, and combat illness. It simply seems erroneous to provide this one statistic, 9.6%, alone, for the average person will view that and assume ‘looks like we are doing a good job’, when in fact one has to look deeper to see the true way a large portion of the world is still living.
The World Bank has stated its goals as being able to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. To me, this is a lofty and worthwhile goal, but, pessimistic as it sounds, seems impossible. The world is a gradient of many things, including wealth; I am not suggesting we should not strive to push that lower end up, as the World Bank is trying to accomplish, but simply that there always will be a group with lower incomes. To deny the fact that there will always be a group with incomes lower than the rest is ignorant and unrealistic, and just because the percentage of people in extreme poverty dips (hopefully) this does not paint the whole picture.
I stress that I am not suggesting that there will not be absolute gains, for the trend of human evolution is a collective movement towards better lives as a whole, but some may experience more or less movement than others. Of course the world as a whole has made great strides towards better lives for all in the past centuries, decades even, but there will always be said relative gradient. Until Marx’s grand and ever imminent class revolution this is how the world will work. All in all, one of the relatively constant desires for mankind is progress, which improves our lives collectively, even if it may take years or decades for certain benefits to reach certain groups, but saying only 9.6% of people are living in extreme poverty means a lot less than it has been presented to mean.