More from UNDESA Vol 23, No. 10 - October 2019

How new data challenges perceptions of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’

By Achim Steiner, Administrator of the UN Development Programme

Development is working. There has been a massive drop in global extreme poverty rates ⁠— from 36 per cent in 1990 to 8.6 per cent in 2018⁠ — vastly increasing the economic and social opportunities for so many across the world. Yet, in describing poverty, the standard still refers to income ⁠— a line that sits on US $1.90 per day. Above and below this line, people are categorized as not poor or poor.

That arbitrary international poverty line does not fully describe how people experience poverty in multiple and simultaneous ways in their daily lives. In response to this gap in knowledge, the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) tries to capture how people experience poverty and does not include income at all. For instance, MPI indicators examine whether a household has access to drinking water, sanitation facilities or electricity; whether a household member has completed five years of schooling; or whether there is severe undernourishment of any adult in the household.

And the results are startling. The 2019 MPI data shows that 1.3 billion people around the world are multidimensionally poor. Astonishingly, one in three children worldwide is multidimensionally poor, compared to one in six adults. A further 879 million people are at risk of falling into multidimensional poverty, which could happen rapidly if they suffer setbacks such as conflict, drought, sickness or unemployment.

The MPI also shows that there are poor people outside of poor countries, outside of poor regions and outside of poor households. Surprisingly, two-thirds of the multidimensionally poor — 886 million people — actually live in middle-income countries. National averages can also hide enormous inequality in patterns of poverty within countries. Look for instance at Uganda where Kampala has an MPI rate of six per cent but outside of the capital, the MPI soars to 96 per cent, a similar rate to Sub-Saharan Africa. There is even inequality under the same roof. In South Asia, for example, almost one quarter of children under the age of five live in households where at least one child in the household is malnourished and at least one child is not.

Worryingly, the pace of poverty reduction is starting to slow down and current forecasts project that six per cent of the global population will still live in extreme poverty by 2030, missing the target of ending poverty. If people are still suffering from poverty, how can we expect them to help us reach the other ambitious targets set by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Indeed, it is no coincidence that eradicating poverty is the first Goal — given its impact upon the other 16 SDGs.

As SDG 1 tasks us with eradicating poverty in all its forms everywhere, by the year 2030, we need more detailed information on where the poor live to ensure that no one is left behind. That is, data that goes beyond income as a measurement of poverty is vital to tackle the root causes of poverty and inequality. Complementing the MPI, the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) upcoming Human Development Report (HDR) will specifically examine the inequalities in human development — inequalities that can also deepen poverty for many. The generation of more comprehensive data by sources like the MPI and the HDR has profound policy implications. They feed further into the recognition that eliminating poverty is not only about ensuring people have enough income to pull people over a one-dimensional income poverty line. Rather, it is about empowering people with access to services such as health, education and energy — much of which depend on a wide range of policies, including the provision of public goods — so that people can fully exercise their human agency.

For UNDP, helping people to get out and stay out of poverty remains a primary focus. Our use of more wide-ranging data on poverty and inequality helps us to provide better and more targeted support to the poor and marginalized. And there are reasons for hope. In India alone, some 271 million people have escaped poverty in the space of just ten years. Poverty is not permanent.

However, poverty is still pervasive. And to fight poverty, we need to know where poor people live. They are not evenly spread across a country, not even within a household. The wider recognition of this fact is crucial as the world works to eradicate poverty in all its forms by 2030.


*The views expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of UN DESA.

SDGs 1 and 2 in numbers

The decline of extreme poverty continues, but the pace has slowed, jeopardizing the achievement of goal 1 to eradicate poverty by 2030. Extreme poverty today is concentrated and overwhelmingly affects rural populations. It is increasingly also exacerbated by violent conflicts and climate change.

Tackling the remaining pockets of extreme poverty will be challenging due to their persistence and complexity—often involving the interplay of social, political and economic factors. Effective social protection schemes and policies, along with government spending on key services, can help those left behind get back on their feet and find a way out of poverty.

Despite earlier extended progress, the number of people suffering from hunger has been on the rise since 2014. Stunting affects the growth and cognitive development of millions of children and while it has declined, it is not fast enough to meet the SDG targets.

In addition, the prevalence of overweight—the other face of malnutrition— is increasing in all age groups. In the wake of conflicts, climate-induced shocks and economic slowdowns worldwide, intensified efforts are needed to implement and scale up interventions to improve access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food for all.

Specifically, attention needs to be given to increasing the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, implementing resilient agricultural practices, and ensuring the proper functioning of markets. Finally, in ensuring that no one is left behind on the road towards zero hunger, the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition must be broken.

Access the latest data on SDG 1, SDG 2 and the complete SDG Progress Report 2019.

Commodity price shock – a setback to poverty eradication

Are we on track to end poverty worldwide by the year 2030? That depends. If we look at global poverty rates measured as the proportion of people living on less than $1.90 per day, we will see impressive progress. According to The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019, 8.6 per cent of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty in 2018, down from about 28 per cent in 2000.

But if we dive deeper into these numbers, we will see that most of the progress has come from East and South Asia while more than two in five people in sub‑Saharan Africa continue to live in extreme poverty. The total number of people suffering extreme poverty in that region is higher today than it was two decades ago.

What is even more worrying, the pace of progress has slowed down notably in recent years. In several countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, the number of people experiencing extreme poverty has, in fact, risen since 2014. What is pushing those countries behind?

For many of them, it is weak macroeconomic performance. To better understand it, we have to go back to the years 2014-2016. As the global economy was slowly recovering from years of financial crises and recession, a sharp downturn in commodity prices spelled trouble for developing countries, many of whom highly depend on commodities for income.

What initially appeared to be a temporary terms of trade shock for the commodity exporters, has in many cases morphed into a fundamental and longer lasting economic slump. Often, countries have not only failed to recover the output losses but have also experienced a marked downward shift in trend growth. In almost one third of commodity-dependent countries, average real per capita incomes are lower today than they were in 2014.

What was it about the commodity price downturn that caused such profound and lasting economic slumps? While the specific dynamics varied between countries, there was a common thread. Rather than simply causing a deterioration of the terms of the trade, the commodity price decline exposed major weaknesses in the economic structures of countries.

Excessive reliance on commodity revenues has forced dramatic fiscal adjustments. Sharp declines in investment is weighing on current growth, while constraining future productivity. In many cases, these economic challenges have been exacerbated by political factors.

These weaknesses can only be remediated with difficult structural reforms, which are even harder to enact in today’s increasingly uncertain global environment. However, without reforms, the growing economic woes of some developing countries might not only cloud their growth outlook, but also hamper progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially poverty eradication.

For more details, read the October Monthly Briefing on the World Economic Situation and Prospects

First end hunger to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

By Máximo Torero, Chief Economist and Assistant Director-General, Economic and Social Development Department, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

An astonishing number of people worldwide — about 820 million or 11 per cent of those alive today — don’t have enough food to eat. At the same time, vast swaths of the global population suffer from overweight- and obesity-related problems in what experts are calling the ‘double burden of malnutrition.’ If we keep going the way we have, the reproach of hunger is sure to continue past 2030.

This is especially troubling because eradicating poverty and hunger, the first and second Sustainable Development Goals, are key to and a prerequisite for meeting all the other goals. As a development economist, I cannot overemphasize the interlinkages between these goals. Zero hunger, for example, integrates and links food security, nutrition and sustainable, climate-resilient agriculture. The SDGs are indivisible.

Nowhere is the need for breaking down the silos as urgent as around the SDGs. This means doubling down on the efforts to spur progress towards goal 1 and 2, especially in countries that are struggling.

The world produces enough food to feed everyone. But it’s not being produced where it’s most needed. In the next decade, global agricultural productivity will increase faster than the 15 per cent increase in food demand, according to a modelling exercise between FAO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It is in Latin America that most of the agricultural outputs and productivity gains in the next decade will happen, thanks to greater investments, resources, and technological innovation in the region. The demand for food, on the other hand, will be strongest in Africa and South Asia. This is why international trade is crucial to food security. Any disruptions, uncertainties, and trade tensions threaten food security in a growing number of food-importing countries.

Unsurprisingly, hunger has risen in countries where the economy has slowed down. Most of these countries rely heavily on primary commodity exports and imports, involving minerals, ores, metals, fuels and raw agricultural materials. For them, slowing global trade means contracting economic growth and increasing government debt at home, which negatively affect food security and nutrition. In high commodity-export dependent countries, one per cent increase in commodity-import dependence led to an average increase of almost four per cent in undernourishment, according to this year’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.

The current trade tensions are bringing the global economy ever closer to its next recession and leading us to even more increase in hunger and malnutrition. Higher tariffs increase the price of imported goods and disrupt global value chains. They reduce productivity, increase uncertainty and weaken investment. Moreover, trade tensions increase government and corporate debt, and raise borrowing costs.

It also means more poverty and inequality, which hinders efforts to eradicate hunger and malnutrition. The poorest people could become even more vulnerable. Over the next decade, global demand for commodities could slow down by one third, especially for agriculture and metals. This spells disaster for food security and nutrition in countries that are dependent on commodity exports.

Trade wars are not the only reason people are malnourished. Governments keep subsidizing products with low nutritional value, favoring staple foods — wheat, rice, maize — over fruits and vegetables. This has a negative effect on nutrition and dietary diversity. In poorer countries, nutrient-dense foods like eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables can be very expensive, making it all but impossible for people to move away from staples. In richer countries, unhealthy foods are cheaper and more convenient.

If we want to envision a world free of hunger and malnutrition, we need sustainable trade with clear rules. Incentives for agricultural producers must change, too. Consumers need better information to choose healthy diets. And we need a big push to think of nutrition as part of food safety.

Skeptics might throw their hands up and argue that it would be impossible to make these tremendous, complex changes. But it can be done, if we can find the will to put knowledge into action. It’s reprehensible to let so many people suffer from hunger and malnutrition when there is enough food for everyone. The obesity epidemic alone will cost the world over a trillion dollars by 2025.

We can start fixing the unfair, unjust, and unsustainable food systems that are undermining progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Fixing the global food systems is an approach that understands the interlinkages, interactions and trade‑offs between the Sustainable Development Goals. In our efforts to fight hunger and malnutrition, it is important to minimize the environmental impacts of production but making sure that everyone has access to sufficient, nutritious food. Balancing these trade-offs would bring us that much closer to tapping the potential of these worthy goals.


*The views expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of UN DESA.

Are we drowning in plastic?

Plastic pollution has emerged as the second most dire threat to the global environment, after climate change. The annual production of plastic has increased from 1.7 million metric tons in 1950 to 322 million metric tons in 2015. More than eight billion tons of plastic have accumulated on earth, polluting land, water, and air. Some have even characterized the current stage of human history as the “Plastics Age.”

Urgent measures are needed to confront the threat of plastics. Interventions have to be made at all five different stages of the plastics life cycle, namely production; its use in producing goods and services; consumption of these plastics-using goods and services; disposal of plastics-containing goods; and collection of improperly-disposed plastics litter.

New and frontier technologies can be helpful in interventions at all these five stages. The current issue of Frontier Technology Quarterly reviews some of the ways in which these technologies can help in the interventions at the first stage. It shows that new technologies can help in both enhancing the use of natural substitutes of plastics and in making plastics more biodegradable, for use in cases where plastics are unavoidable.

For example, nanotechnology can be used to coat cardboards to make them water resistant and leakproof, thus enhancing their use as substitutes of plastics in packaging. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, can help to widen the use of natural fibers, such as jute, flax, and hemp as substitutes for plastic. Genetic engineering can also be used to overcome the limitations of starch and cellulose in producing biodegradable plastics. Similarly, nanotechnology can be used to create a new range of biomaterials, which can be processed into biodegradable plastics.

Actual utilization of these potentials of new technologies, however, will require appropriate policies, including government support for research and for overcoming the infant-industry barriers.

Access the latest issue of the Frontier Technology Quarterly

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