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Where we are in the global fight against extreme poverty

Just 9% of the world is now living on less than $1.90 a day. But the quest to get that number to zero is going to require more concentrated effort.

Where we are in the global fight against extreme poverty
[Source Images: octomesecam/iStock, cienpies/iStock]

Three decades ago, more than a third of the world–1.9 billion people–lived below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day. By 2017, that number had shrunk to 9%. By one estimate, someone escapes from extreme poverty roughly every second.

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The rate of change is unprecedented. But a new report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation notes that progress may be on the verge of stalling. “Progress is possible, but not inevitable,” says Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Gates Foundation. The report, called Goalkeepers, tracks progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. And of the 17 goals for 2030, the goal for poverty is perhaps the most hugely ambitious in its simplicity: end poverty, in all of its forms, everywhere.

[Source Images: octomesecam/iStock, cienpies/iStock]
The first waves of poverty reduction happened in China and India, where more than 750 million people have climbed out of extreme poverty in the last few decades. The next challenge is in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty has been decreasing at a slower rate–and where the population could nearly double in size by 2050. Even if the percentage of poor people dropped by half, population growth could keep the number of poor people the same as it is now.

By midcentury, almost 90% of the world’s poorest people are projected to live in sub-Saharan Africa. Almost half of those will live in two countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria. Other countries in the region, including Madagascar and Somalia, are projected to make up the top 10 poorest in the world.

Those countries face different challenges than China or India, from severe impacts of climate change to more violence and political instability. But it’s useful, says Desmond-Hellmann, to look at what has worked in other parts of the world. “Looking at the kinds of gains that you see when you invest in health, nutrition, and education, [poverty] is not only not inevitable, we actually know what works,” she says.

[Source Images: octomesecam/iStock, cienpies/iStock]

In Brazil, for example, the government made some specific investments in nutrition that reduced stunting–impaired growth in children–by 50% over 25 years, which helped contribute to the country’s huge growth in GDP. In Indonesia, investments helped increase access to contraception and cut the country’s fertility rate in half, which also lifted its GDP.

If every African woman had access to contraception and could choose both when she wanted to have children and how many children she wanted to have, the population increase on the continent could be 30% smaller by the end of the century–one key to reaching the goal of ending poverty there. “This would mean that more girls and women could expand their horizons,” says Desmond-Hellmann. “They could stay in school longer, they could have children later, they could earn more as adults, and they could invest more in their children.”

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Most women in the region still don’t have good access to affordable, modern contraception, an issue that the foundation is studying. The report points to examples of solutions like Future Fab, a network of clinics for teen girls in Kenya that removes the stigma of going to traditional “family planning” clinics. It’s an idea that could be replicated elsewhere.

[Source Images: octomesecam/iStock, cienpies/iStock]
By investing in young Africans through better health and education–the median age across Africa is only 18, versus 35 in North America–the region’s economy could grow nearly 90% by 2050. “There’s an opportunity for Africa’s growing youth population to change the world,” Desmond-Hellmann says.

Poverty won’t end by the Sustainable Development Goals’ deadline of 2030. But with the right investments and policy decisions, the rate of extreme poverty could shrink to about 6% by then, and 4% by 2050.

It is possible to eventually end global poverty if the world makes the right choices, Desmond-Hellmann says. The report “busts the myth that there will always be poor people, there’s always been, and there will always be–that sort of fatalistic approach,” she says. “We just reject that. We’re optimists . . . I hope that what people take away is that we’re optimists who are data-driven.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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