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Global development: The fight against poverty

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It has proved much harder to eliminate poverty than was thought in the 1960s and 1970s. However, much has been learned from past mistakes, and today there is a general feeling that foreign aid is being better used than in previous decades. The UN Millennium Development Goals established in 2000 by international agreement are probably the most significant major attempt to defeat poverty ever undertaken.

‘For the first time in history, global economic prosperity, brought on by continuing scientific and technological progress and the self-reinforcing accumulation of wealth, has placed the world within reach of eliminating extreme poverty altogether.’

J D Sachs, UN Millennium Project

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small globe iconIntroduction

Although the global poverty situation is improving, approximately one in six people worldwide struggle on a daily basis in terms of:

  • adequate nutrition
  • access to uncontaminated drinking water
  • safe shelter
  • adequate sanitation
  • access to basic healthcare.

These people have to survive on $1 or less a day and are largely denied access to public services for health, education and infrastructure. The UN estimates that 20,000 people die every day of dire poverty, for want of food, safe drinking water, medicine and other basic needs.

Figure 1 shows the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty from 1981 to 2001 and the projection to 2015.

  • In 1981 the global total was 1.5 billion, with 53 per cent living in east Asia and the Pacific and 32 per cent in south Asia. The remaining area of considerable poverty was sub-Saharan Africa.
  • By 1990 the global total had been reduced to 1.2 billion due to strong economic growth in some world regions, particularly east Asia. In contrast, the number of people living in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa increased significantly from 164 million to 227 million. As a result, sub-Saharan Africa’s proportion of the total rose from 11 per cent in 1981 to 19 per cent in 1991. However, in absolute terms, the largest numbers in extreme poverty remained in:
  • a) east Asia and the Pacific and
    b) south Asia.

  • In spite of the steady increase in world population, the number of people in extreme poverty continued to fall to 1.1 billion by 2001. Yet again, the share by world region changed considerably with the share of extreme poverty accounted for by sub-Saharan Africa increasing even further to 28 per cent. The share of east Asia and the Pacific was now down to 25 per cent. South Asia was now the region with the largest absolute number in extreme poverty.
  • By 2015 it is hoped that the number of people living in extreme poverty will fall to 0.7 billion.

Figure 3 shows the relationship between global poverty and GDP since 1820, in the early days of the industrial revolution. In 1820 the wealth gap by world region was very limited compared to today as Figure 4 shows. However, as the pace of industrialisation increased in what is now the developed world, the gap widened significantly. The world’s poorest countries today are all heavily primary product dependent. In contrast, the success of the newly industrialised countries (NICs) such as Brazil, China and South Korea over the past 40 years has resulted in a rapid development of their manufacturing and service sectors and their reduced reliance on the primary sector. This has broadly mirrored what happened in the MEDCs from the late 1700s.

small globe iconThe Millennium Project

The United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000 agreed eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to tackle extreme poverty in its many dimensions. In January 2005 the United Nations Millennium Project published ‘Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals’. The report provides, in much greater detail than previously available, a strategy to achieve the objectives set in 2005. Subsequently, the 2005 World Summit tried to delineate precise steps to achieve the development goals agreed five years earlier by 2015. However, many were disappointed by the 40-page outcome document (2005 World Summit Outcome), which did not firmly commit world governments to the radical steps needed.

‘We will have time to reach the Millennium Development Goals – worldwide and in most, or even all, individual countries – but only if we break with business as usual. We cannot win overnight. Success will require sustained action across the entire decade between now and the deadline. It takes time to train the teachers, nurses and engineers; to build the roads, schools and hospitals; to grow the small and large businesses able to create the jobs and income needed. So we must start now. And we must more than double global development assistance over the next few years. Nothing less will help to achieve the Goals.’

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, 2005



Figure 1. Proportion of people living in extreme poverty from 1981 to 2015.
Figure 1.
Proportion of people living in extreme poverty from 1981 to 2015.
Click here to enlarge.

Figure 3. Poor housing along the Nile.
Figure 2.
Poor housing along
the Nile.
Click here to enlarge.

Figure 3. Relationship between global GDP and global poverty.
Figure 3.
Relationship between global GDP and global poverty.
Click here to enlarge.

Figure 4. Growth in GDP per capita per region.
Figure 4.
Growth in GDP
per capita per region.
Click here to enlarge.









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