Seven years ago, the international community made a commitment to halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty and hunger between 1990 and 2015. Now at the halfway point between its declaration and the target deadline to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, it is obvious the world has made significant progress. However, though poverty and malnutrition rates are declining, it is less clear whether efforts are reaching the poorest and most hungry people -- the world's most deprived. Currently, 1 billion people worldwide live on less than one dollar a day, the threshold defined by the international community as constituting extreme poverty. Yet, this number masks a multitude of people living in varying degrees of poverty, some even more desperately poor than others.

In a new report, The World's Most Deprived: Characteristics and Causes of Extreme Poverty and Hunger, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the population living on less than $1 a day is further divided into three categories, according to the depth of poverty -- an analysis that better answers the question of whether the very poorest are being reached. The report is the first of its kind to use household poverty data from 1990 to 2004 to look below the dollar-a-day poverty line and examine who the poorest people are, where they live and how they have fared over time. It was conducted as part of an ongoing consultation process undertaken by IFPRI to see what policies, programmes and implementation strategies are needed for development efforts to be more effective at reaching the very poorest. Three categories of poverty in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa were examined in the study: subjacent poor (those living on between $0.75 and $1 a day), medial poor (those living on between $0.50 and $0.75 a day) and ultra poor (those living on less than $0.50 a day).*

Our analysis found that as many as 162 million people survive on less than $0.50 a day. If concentrated in a single nation, these people would comprise the world's seventh most populous country.

To determine how the ultra poor are faring, we calculated the amount by which poverty in each group would have been reduced if everyone's income had grown by the same amount between 1990 and 2004. We then compared this "equal growth scenario" with the amount of poverty reduction that actually took place during this period. We found that progress against poverty has been slowest for the ultra poor. Had poverty reduction arisen from equal growth in incomes for all three categories, the proportion of people living in ultra poverty in the world would have declined by 3.6 per cent. In actuality, the proportion declined by only 1.4 per cent, less than half the expected rate.

A third striking finding of our analysis is that the ultra poor are overwhelmingly concentrated in one region -- sub-Saharan Africa -- home to more than 75 per cent of those living on less than half a dollar a day. In contrast, most of Asia's poor live just under the dollar-a-day line and only a small minority of the population is ultra poor. In addition to the severity of poverty being much greater in sub-Saharan Africa, it is in this region that progress against ultra poverty has been the slowest. Poverty-reduction efforts have been more successful at targeting those just below the dollar-a-day line, but ultra-poverty rates have stagnated. In contrast, rapid economic growth in East Asia and the Pacific has benefited all groups nearly equally.

World hunger -- a similar picture. In our study, we also explored three levels of hunger based on the amount of calorie consumption per day: subjacent hungry (those who consume between 1,800 and 2,200 calories per day); medial hungry (those who consume between 1,600 and 1,800 calories per day) and ultra hungry (those who consume less than 1,600 calories per day).

International experts recommend 2,200 calories as the average energy requirement for adults undertaking light activity. The 1,800 calorie cut-off identifies people who do not consume sufficient dietary energy to meet the minimum requirement for light activity, as established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Those consuming less than 1,600 calories per day are at risk of dying from extreme hunger or starvation.
While global estimates of hunger in these three groups is not available, we calculated the prevalence of each type of hunger using household survey data from 15 countries in Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Again, our findings highlight the greater severity of hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. In most Asian and Latin American countries considered (Bangladesh, Guatemala, India, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan and Timor-Leste), there are almost as many or more people facing subjacent hunger than ultra hunger. However, in sub-Saharan African countries studied (Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal and Zambia), most of the hungry consume less than 1,600 calories per day. The percentage of the population suffering from ultra hunger in the region ranges from 27 per cent (Kenya) to an appalling 60 per cent (Burundi). In sub-Saharan Africa, most of those defined as hungry live in ultra hunger and are at risk of dying from extreme hunger or starvation.

Poverty traps and exclusion. The slow progress for the world's poorest people suggests that "business as usual" will not be enough to see welfare improvements for the ultra poor within an acceptable timeframe. Policies and programmes that are better targeted to this group are needed. To better understand the characteristics of the poorest and the daily challenges and obstacles they face, as well as the dynamics that keep them poor, the report summarizes findings from an analysis of household data and a review of empirical research in 20 countries in developing regions of the world.
Our study found that the most deprived people typically live in remote rural areas with little access to roads, markets, education and health services, and have few assets. The poorest are also much more likely to belong to socially excluded groups, such as ethnic minorities, disadvantaged castes and tribes, and those suffering from ill-health and disability. As a result of remoteness, limited assets and exclusion, the poorest are often unable to take advantage of the opportunities that growth provides.
In fact, we find that the daily challenges faced by the ultra poor can lead to conditions from which it is difficult for them to emerge without outside assistance. For example, we found that the ultra poor are likely to be those who have little energy to undertake productive activities as a result of malnutrition; they have limited access to cash or credit with which to undertake high-return income activities; and they are often unable to invest in the education and nutrition of their children, causing their children to more likely be poor. As a result, poverty and hunger, inherited at birth or caused by unexpected events, can persist for years. Unexpected events, particularly serious illness, were found to explain the descent of many households into extreme poverty in many of the countries we looked at.
A way forward. The report points to four areas of action for improving the welfare of the poorest:

  • Addressing remoteness. This means improving access to markets, health care and education for those in the most remote rural areas and thinking creatively about how to improve access to services for those who remain remote.
  • Investing in nutrition, education and assets of the poorest. Perhaps this means doing some of the same things, such as providing access to savings programmes and credits but making it work in a way that would particularly benefit the ultra poor. For example, how do we really make microcredit work for the very poorest people in the village?
  • Protecting the assets of the poorest. Our research shows that catastrophic events, such as health crises, that cause households to fall into ultra poverty can have persistent effects. Social protection and innovations in insurance for the poorest can help protect households and their assets against such events as they try and grow out of ultra poverty.
  • Addressing exclusion. Our research shows that addressing the exclusion of disadvantaged groups, such as the ethnic minorities in South East Asia and indigenous peoples in Latin America, by targeting interventions directly to them is particularly important.

Underpinning all of this, the report highlights a need for improved knowledge and understanding of who the world's poorest and hungry are and their daily challenges and obs-tacles. It is only with carefully collected, context-specific and time-relevant data that it is possible to correctly design, and learn from, policies and interventions for improving the welfare of the most deprived.
The full report, The World's Most Deprived: Characteristics and Causes of Extreme Poverty and Hunger, by Akhter U. Ahmed, Ruth Vargas Hill, Lisa C. Smith, Doris M. Wiesmann and Tim Frankenberger, can be found at the IFPRI website.
* Subjacent poverty is defined as the proportion of the population living on between $0.81 and $1.08 a day; medial poverty as between $0.54 and $0.81 a day; and ultra poverty as below $0.54 a day. All are measured at the 1993 purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates.