Eradication of extreme poverty “within reach,” says United Nations

New reports from the UN indicate that some of the poorest countries could be rid of extreme poverty in two decades

Worldwide poverty rates are falling and some of the planet’s poorest countries could eradicate extreme poverty within two decades, according to new reports from the United Nations and the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI).

OPHI researchers found sharp decreases in ‘multidimensional poverty’ – a measure that considers living standards rather than just income levels – in 18 out of 22 countries studied. Particularly striking, says OPHI director Sabina Alkire, was that the “star performers” were countries with traditionally high poverty rates, such as Nepal, which reduced its poverty rate by a third, from 65% to 44%, between 2006 and 2011.

At that rate of change, the top-performing countries, which also include nations such as Rwanda and Bangladesh, could, in theory, eliminate extreme poverty entirely within about two decades, the report says. However, that’s unlikely to happen in practice, Alkire notes, because economic gains will come more slowly to certain groups such as minorities, the disabled, or people in remote areas.

Still, the Oxford team’s findings are unequivocally positive, Alkire says, especially given the latest edition of the United Nations’ flagship development report, which uses OPHI’s poverty index and other measures to offer a snapshot of global development. None of the countries for which data was available have seen a drop in their human-development scores since 1990, the report found, while more than 40 countries in developing areas posted significantly greater gains than had been expected.

That shift – driven in part by globalisation and an increase in south-to-south trade – is creating economic opportunities and radically improving living conditions for many of the world’s poorest people. “Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast,” the report states. “The south … is driving global economic growth and societal change for the first time in centuries.”

Such assessments have led some to declare that victory in the war on global poverty is now within reach. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim called recently for a push to end extreme poverty worldwide by 2030. Developing countries have “a chance, for the first time ever, to end extreme poverty within a generation,” Kim said.

However, Alkire believes that’s too optimistic. Her research suggests that the global trend masks sharp regional variations, with some countries, such as Ethiopia, likely to be struggling with extreme poverty for almost a century to come. Still, she says, it’s remarkable that so many countries have come so far in so little time. “There’s always more to do,” she says. “But we can learn from the countries that are doing it well.”

In fact, Western officials are already making domestic use of poverty-busting techniques pioneered in the developing world. New York City drew inspiration from Mexican and Brazilian projects to create a rewards programme for poor people who sought preventive healthcare, education or job training. As Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote in the UN report: “No one has a monopoly on good ideas.”