Saturday, June 1, 2013

Towards the end of poverty

June 1, 2013

In his inaugural address in 1949 Harry Truman said that “more than half the people in the world are living in conditions approaching misery. For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering of those people.” It has taken much longer than Truman hoped, but the world has lately been making extraordinary progress in lifting people out of extreme poverty. Between 1990 and 2010, their number fell by half as a share of the total population in developing countries, from 43% to 21%—a reduction of almost 1 billion people.

Now the world has a serious chance to redeem Truman’s pledge to lift the least fortunate. Of the 7 billion people alive on the planet, 1.1 billion subsist below the internationally accepted extreme-poverty line of $1.25 a day. Starting this week and continuing over the next year or so, the UN’s usual Who’s Who of politicians and officials from governments and international agencies will meet to draw up a new list of targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were set in September 2000 and expire in 2015. Governments should adopt as their main new goal the aim of reducing by another billion the number of people in extreme poverty by 2030.

Take a bow, capitalism

Nobody in the developed world comes remotely close to the poverty level that $1.25 a day represents. America’s poverty line is $63 a day for a family of four. In the richer parts of the emerging world $4 a day is the poverty barrier. But poverty’s scourge is fiercest below $1.25 (the average of the 15 poorest countries’ own poverty lines, measured in 2005 dollars and adjusted for differences in purchasing power): people below that level live lives that are poor, nasty, brutish and short. They lack not just education, health care, proper clothing and shelter—which most people in most of the world take for granted—but even enough food for physical and mental health. Raising people above that level of wretchedness is not a sufficient ambition for a prosperous planet, but it is a necessary one.

The world’s achievement in the field of poverty reduction is, by almost any measure, impressive. Although many of the original MDGs—such as cutting maternal mortality by three-quarters and child mortality by two-thirds—will not be met, the aim of halving global poverty between 1990 and 2015 was achieved five years early.