Recognising success in the war on poverty

Why have staggering reductions in world poverty gone almost unnoticed in recent years?

John LanchesterI invite readers of the SPERI blog to take a moment to think about what they think is humanity’s greatest collective achievement—the single greatest thing we have all done together. Give yourself a few seconds to think about that: the collective enterprise of modern science and medicine, perhaps, or the development of societies which offer care and protection to all their citizens from cradle to grave.

And now I’m going to propose a candidate for that greatest ever achievement. Just under a year ago, on 29 February 2012 the World Bank announced that the proportion of the planet’s population living in absolute poverty—on less than $1.25 a day—had halved from 1990 to 2010. That rate of poverty reduction, driven by economic growth across the world from China to Ghana, is unprecedented in global history. Just imagine: in twenty years, there are half as many absolutely poor people. That degree of material progress for the very poor has never been achieved in such a short period of time before; it’s an unprecedented achievement in human history.

The goal of halving the number of people living in absolute poverty was one of the targets set out in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals in 2000, with a target date of 2015. I remember thinking, when I first read about the MDG, that it was a typical piece of bloviating on the part of the rich countries at the UN, and would be certain to lead to no real action. But that was wrong. (There was a tiny bit of fiddling involved in that the start date for the goals—the base line—was set back in 1990. So some progress towards the goals had already been made before they were first announced.) The progress made in respect of many of these targets has been really extraordinary. Here’s a summary of what’s been achieved, from Bill Gates’s annual letter, published last week, reporting on the activities of his foundation:

“The MDG target of reducing extreme poverty by half has been reached ahead of the deadline, as has the goal of halving the proportion of people who lack access to safe drinking water. Living conditions for more than 200 million slum dwellers have also improved—double the target. Some goals, however, were set at such an ambitious level that they will be missed. For instance, while we have reduced the number of mothers who die during childbirth by almost 50 percent—which is incredible—we will, however, fall short of the goal of a 75 percent reduction.

We’re also not on track to meet one of the most critical goals—reducing the number of children who die under the age of five by two-thirds. We’ve made substantial progress. The number of children who die has declined from nearly 12 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011. While that means 14,000 fewer children around the world are dying every day than in 1990, we won’t reach the two-thirds target by 2015.

Still, many individual countries are on track to achieve this target. One of them is Ethiopia, which used the MDGs to drive an overhaul of its primary health care system that has led to a dramatic decline in childhood deaths”.

Two questions arise. The first is, how is this being done? How are the very ambitious MDG targets being met? There are a lot of complex answers to that question, but according to Gates, one simple phenomenon is at the core of them: measurement. ‘In the past year I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.’ Gates draws an analogy from the invention of the steam engine, and a device called the ‘Lord Chancellor’, a micrometer which permitted a new level of accuracy in measuring small distances, and therefore ‘allowed inventors to see if their incremental design changes led to the improvements—higher-quality parts, better performance, and less coal consumption—needed to build better engines’. One of the most important aspects of the MDG is that it has given clear things to measure.

The second question is, why isn’t all this better known? Maybe it’s because most people, most of the time, aren’t that interested. We give attention to the developing world in intermittent spasms, usually linked to big charitable events such as Live Aid, but our real concerns—the things that really bother us—are closer to home. Perhaps that tendency is more marked when times are hard. And it’s also the case that steady progress towards a numerical goal is difficult to make into a headline, and the news is all about headlines. Still, there’s something remarkable about achievements on this scale going so little remarked. As Gates says: ‘The lives of the poorest have improved more rapidly in the last 15 years than ever before.’ How come that isn’t a story?

About the author

John Lanchester

John Lanchester is a prolific author and journalist.  He first came to attention when he won the Whitbread First Novel Prize for his bestselling book The Debt to Pleasure in 1996 and gathered further acclaim when he published in 2010 a brilliantly incisive account of the financial crisis called Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. He wrote this book as a product of the research he was undertaking for a new novel set in the financial world.  This novel came to be called Capital and was published in hardback in 2012.