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Measuring The Millennium Development Goals: The Quest To End Extreme Poverty

As we reach the 15-year deadline for the MDGs, we’re taking stock of how close we came to hitting them. Up first: Halve the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day.

Measuring The Millennium Development Goals: The Quest To End Extreme Poverty
[Photos: Aneta_Gu via Shutterstock]

Extreme poverty is the most obvious and visible indication that our society is unequal, and that the amazing benefits that technology and development have bestowed on some of us are not trickling down and helping people in the poorer parts of the world. So when the UN launched it’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, with the mission to achieve benchmarks in improving the conditions of people around the world, poverty was the first item on the list.

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Millennium Development Goal 1, which uses a 1990-level baseline, covers the most basic of basic needs: Do people have enough food and money to survive? The goals specifically aimed to half the number of people living on $1.25 a day, achieve full employment for everyone, and half the number of people who suffer from hunger.

There’s been a lot of progress on MDG 1. According to the UN’s report, the rate of poverty (officially $1.25 a day or less) fell from 36% in 1990 to 15% in 2011, and it’s projected to fall to 12% by the end of this year, achieving that part of the goal. The poverty rate in the developing world has dropped from 47% in 1990 to 14% today–a reduction of two-thirds.

But we haven’t quite met the target for hunger. The proportion of undernourished people in developing countries is forecast to reach 12.9% this year, versus 23.3% in 1990. For a while, it looked like the world might was on track, but in the last few years food and fuel prices have become more volatile, increasing food insecurity. As for employment, in 1990, there were 300 million working-age people around the world without full-time employment. That number is down to 205 million–an improvement, but still very far to go.

How much can the development community take credit for this progress? Not too much, in all likelihood. The most important factor was the opening of global trade, including the entry of China to the World Trade Organization in 2001. That country’s export-led growth allowed it to lift hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty–about three quarters of the world’s total over the period.

“You can’t tell the story of global progress against poverty without telling the story of globalization,” says Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, in Washington D.C. “If by ‘international development’ you include trade and investment agreements, and I certainly would, then they were very important in meeting the MDGs. If you mean aid, it is a different story.” Compared with the role of other MDGs, setting MDG 1 probably had little impact in itself. But then, as Kenny points out, even marginal improvements are worth a lot when you count across billions of people.

The new Global Goals, which set the way forward post-2015, are more ambitious than the MDGs. The new goal #1 aims to “eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere” by 2030. That’s a big task: 826 million still live on less than $1.25 a day, while 795 million are undernourished.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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