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Banishment of poverty an affordable goal

A summary of the United Nations Human Development Report 1997 citing advances in economic opportunity which have dramatically reduced poverty in some areas, while noting those in which human poverty has yet to be addressed. 

Given the unprecedented progress in human and economic development over the past 50 years, authors of a new report argue that eradicating extreme poverty in the first one or two decades of the 21st century is a feasible, affordable goal. But to achieve this goal, they say, strategies are needed to: accelerate economic growth in the 100 countries caught in stagnation or decline; implement policies that are 'pro-poor' or targeted at poverty reduction; and reverse the menacing setbacks that create and recreate poverty, including HIV/AIDS, violent conflict and environmental degradation.

According to the just-released Human Development Report 1997, an independent report commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), much of the world's population has benefited from major advances in economic opportunity and human well-being. For the developing world, these gains have covered as much distance in the past 30 years as the industrialized world did in a century. More than three-quarters of the population can expect to survive to age 40. Adult illiteracy has been reduced by nearly half. Infant mortality has been cut nearly three-fifths.

Nearly a third of the developing world's population - about 1.3 billion people - live on less than US $1 a day.

But this progress must be put in perspective, the report says. Nearly a third of the developing world's population - about 1.3 billion people - live on less than US$1 a day.

More than 800 million people do not get enough to eat. Nor has the progress been equally distributed - with some regions too often lagging behind others. Thus, Sub-Saharan Africa's life expectancy at 50 years is 19 years less than the life expectancy achieved in East Asia.

The Human Development Report 1997 is the eighth in a series of annual reports commissioned by UNDP, and prepared through a collaborative effort of a panel of eminent scholars and the UNDP Human Development Report team, under the guidance of Richard Jolly, Special Adviser to the UNDP Administrator.

"The dramatic record of poverty reduction in the 20th century shows that we should raise our sights, not downsize our vision for human development," says Jolly. "Extreme poverty could be banished from the globe within one or two decades. A score of countries are on track to do this, including some of the largest - like China - and some of the most dynamic - like Chile, Malaysia, Mauritius and the Republic of Korea."

This year's report focuses sharply on poverty. It provides an extensive overview of global poverty trends; an assessment of the scale of today's poverty problems worldwide; six priorities for tackling poverty at the country level; and a global agenda for supportive action.

As in previous reports, the 1997 report presents a 'Human Development Index' that ranks countries according to a composite index of life expectancy, educational attainment and a decent standard of living. This year's report also introduces a special 'Human Poverty Index' (HPI), a country-by-country measure of poverty from the human perspective based on three variables: vulnerability of death at an early age; illiteracy; and a less-than-decent standard of living comprising a lack of access to health services, safe water and adequate food. This measure departs from the conventional measures which are based on income only.

Based on their assessment of the rapid reductions in both income and human poverty throughout much of the developing world, the report's authors maintain that the eradication of extreme poverty is doable:

  • Income poverty rates for roughly half the developing world have been reduced by 25 per cent or more in just two decades. China, and another 14 countries with populations that add up to more than 1.6 billion people, have halved the proportion of their people in income poverty in less than 20 years. India, and 10 more countries with almost another billion people, have brought down the proportion of their people in income poverty by a quarter or more.
  • Human poverty rates have been reduced in well over 100 developing countries, and key indicators of human development have advanced strongly over the past few decades. Since 1960, in little more than a generation, child death rates in developing countries have been more than halved. Life expectancy has increased by more than a third. Malnutrition rates have declined by almost a third. The proportion of children in primary school has risen from less than half to more than three-quarters. And the share of rural families with access to safe water has risen from barely a 10th to about three-quarters.
  • In all, by the end of the 20th century some three to four billion of the world's total population of 5.7 billion will have experienced substantial improvements in their standard of living, and about four to five billion will have access to basic education and health.

The report points out two major qualifications. First, not everyone has benefited. The degree of advance has differed widely among groups, countries and regions. Women and children are particularly affected by poverty. Not only do women make a smaller income than men, but they are more constrained by their reproductive and household responsibilities, and they have less access to land, credit and employment opportunities that can help them and their children to escape poverty. Secondly, many of the poorest and least developed countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere have gained much less than the developing countries as a group.

Some stark figures summarize the balance sheet of poverty towards the end of the 20th century:

  • South Asia has the most people affected by human poverty. And it has the largest number of people in income poverty: 510 million. South Asia, East Asia, and South-East Asia and the Pacific combined have 950 million of the 1.3 billion who are income poor.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa has the greatest incidence of human poverty - and the most rapid growth in human poverty. Some 220 million people are in income poverty.
  • In Latin America, human poverty is less pervasive than income poverty but both are still growing. Income poverty affects 110 million people.
  • The countries of Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States have seen the greatest deterioration in the past decade, from four million people below the income poverty line in 1987/88 to 120 million today, affecting about a quarter of the total population.
  • Three new global pressures creating and recreating poverty -- violent conflicts, HIV/AIDS and environmental degradation -- have pushed millions of people back into poverty in the past 15 years, eroding their assets and destroying their lives.

"None of these depressing developments was inevitable," says Jolly. "And all can be reversed, if countries take more seriously the commitments already made to give poverty reduction a high priority -- nationally and internationally."

The commitments of the 1995 World Summit for Social Development provide a starting point. Every country -- developing and developed -- needs a national assessment of poverty and policies and strategies for reducing overall poverty in the shortest time possible, reducing inequalities and eradicating absolute poverty by a target date.

Recognizing that each nation will need to adopt its own prescription for reducing poverty, the Human Development Report 1997 identifies six priorities for action:

  1. Initiate people-centred policies that give individuals, households and communities expanded access to economic, social, political, environmental and personal assets.
  2. Work toward gender equality, both as an end and as a means to eradication of poverty.
  3. Focus on pro-poor growth in the 100 or so countries from the developing world, Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States where growth has been failing. A minimum target should be three per cent per capita income growth per year.
  4. Improve the management of globalization, including better trade policies, and fairer rules and fair terms for poor countries to enter markets.
  5. Create a political environment so that poor people and poor communities can be heard rather than suppressed and oppressed.
  6. Take special actions for special situations to prevent economic reversal, including peace-building efforts in war-torn countries and providing more support to those countries most in need -- to help them reduce their debt, increase their share of aid and to enhance their entry into global markets, especially for Africa's agricultural exports.

"The resources needed to implement this agenda are a mere fraction of the resources available -  globally and in most countries," says Jolly. "The cost of accelerated action must be measured against the cost of allowing poverty to grow - that is, against continuing political conflict and instability, against continuing poverty and disease in large parts of the world, against affronts to humanity and human sensibilities."

The additional cost of achieving basic social services for all in developing countries is estimated at about $40,000 million a year over the next 10 years. This sum is less than 0.2 per cent of the world income of $25 trillion. The amount needed to close the gap between the annual income of poor people and the minimum income at which they would no longer be poor is estimated at another $40,000 million a year. Thus, to provide universal access to basic social services and transfers to alleviate income poverty would cost roughly $80,000 million -- less than the combined net worth of the seven richest men in the world.

Commenting on the report, UNDP Administrator James Gustave Speth said: "[The report's] most important message is that poverty is no longer inevitable. The world has the material and natural resources, the know-how and the people to make a poverty-free world a reality in less than a generation. This is not woolly idealism but a practical and operationally achievable goal." (Source: UNDP)

From the July/August 1997 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005