Global Public Square recently published a thoughtful piece on how global poverty rates are falling fast. It argued that one country in particular is almost solely responsible for this dramatic trend: China. Meanwhile, it said progress in the rest of the world “has been much, much slower – if there’s been progress at all.”
Here’s the problem. There are 62 other countries across the globe that are also slashing extreme poverty rates at a remarkable pace. And many of them are located in Sub-Saharan Africa. So, the more important question is – how do we accelerate the progress being made in places like Ethiopia and Uganda while simultaneously jumpstarting it in places that are lagging behind, like Nigeria and the Congo?
It’s true that China’s case is remarkable – both in terms of its sheer scale and speed. It has lifted 680 million people out of poverty in a single generation. That’s amazing. It’s every poverty fighter’s dream. But the global story isn’t just about China. It is also about countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, Cameroon, Ghana, and Senegal that are also witnessing dramatic declines in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.25 a day.
According to a forthcoming ONE Campaign report, 63 nations are on track to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015 (compared to 1990 levels) – including 16 in Sub-Saharan Africa. And their progress has further sped up over the last decade – particularly as African countries have turned the corner on HIV/AIDS, cleared unsustainable debt loads and made strategic investments in their social and physical infrastructure. The difficult and traumatic decade of the 1990s is receding in the rear-view mirror.
Bono mentioned 10 of these African trailblazers during his recent TED talk. Let’s look at two of them:
– In absolute terms, Ethiopia lifted an estimated 10 million people out of extreme poverty in just over a decade (from 2000 to 2011). During that time, the Ethiopian government focused nearly half of its total budget on poverty fighting sectors like health, agriculture, and education. And donors like the U.S. and Europe provided significant support alongside it. If the current trend holds, extreme poverty can be virtually eliminated by 2030.
– Uganda lifted nearly 3 million people out of poverty in four short years (between 2006 and 2009). Overall, the percentage of Ugandans living on less than $1.25 a day has fallen by nearly half since the early 1990s. It, too, could virtually eliminate it by 2030.
These dramatic results have inspired many world leaders – like President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, and Malawian President Joyce Banda – to declare that the world can virtually eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. Not to mention the World Bank president and a certain Irish rock star to boot.
To get there, several things will have to happen. There is risk in this story, just as there is promise. First, developing economies will not only need to keep growing at a healthy clip, but that growth will need to reach and benefit their poorest citizens. On that, I couldn’t agree more with the Global Public Square article. Conversely, a global growth shock that deals a direct blow to poor nations would be catastrophic in the fight against extreme poverty. Second, governments need to implement targeted policies that address growing rates of inequality. Fortunately, countries like Brazil have shown that this is possible. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.
Third, and perhaps most challenging, is the tough nut of states that have been governed poorly must be cracked. In Africa, this means places like Nigeria, Sudan, and the Congo. These are the populous nations that are holding down regional progress. They largely explain why Africa’s overall growth rates aren’t even more compelling than they are. One country like Nigeria can overshadow five like Uganda or two like Ethiopia simply because of its size.
Truth be told, nobody has a magic elixir that will transform these places into the next China or Ethiopia. Long running domestic instability, or even conflict, takes time to address. Then again, people said the same thing about China in the 1970s and Ethiopia in the 1980s. Or even Uganda in the 1990s. They were hopeless cases then. But look at them today.
So, going forward, let’s expand the global poverty discussion beyond a singular focus on China. While this tendency may be natural given China’s absolute numbers, it does an injustice to smaller nations that are surging alongside it. These success stories demonstrate that the elimination of extreme poverty is possible well within our lifetime, perhaps only a decade and a half away.
Look out for our 2013 DATA Report, released on 29 May, which looks at how donor and African government spending is linked to progress.
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