The percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day declined in all countries of the developing world between 2005 and 2008, according to estimates released late last month by the World Bank. South Asia saw the $1.25 a day poverty rate fall from 61 per cent to 36 per cent between 1981 and 2005, and the rate fell a further 3.5 per cent between 2005 and 2008 (the latest date for which reliable figures are available).
The proportion of the population living in extreme poverty is now the lowest since 1981, says the bank. Further, preliminary estimates for 2010 indicate that the $1.25 a day poverty rate had fallen to under half of its 1990 value by 2010, which would mean that the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving extreme poverty from its 1990 level has been achieved before the 2015 deadline. However, the bank acknowledges that there was only a modest drop in the number of people living below $2 per day – the median poverty line for developing countries – in the same period.
These statistics will, of course, be of no consolation to those who remain on the wrong side of them. Since the mid-1990s, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University estimates that 150,000 small farmers in India have committed suicide, mostly over debts. In the 10 months to October 2011, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan calculates that about 1,600 people committed suicide for reasons connected to poverty, a sharp reminder that some escape extreme poverty by more drastic means. As Jaime Saavedra, director of the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction and Equity Group, points out, ‘having 22 per cent of people in developing nations still living on less than $1.25 a day, and 42 per cent with less than $2 a day is intolerable’.
There are other reasons, too, why these findings offer only limited cause for celebration. For one thing, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) calculates that the South Asian nations are ‘off track’ in progress towards other MDGs, making the least progress in the Asia-Pacific region. A report, also published in February, by ADB, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific concedes that, though the region has already met the goal of halving the number of people living on less than $1.25 per day, it continues to lose high numbers of children before they reach the age of five and thousands of mothers are dying in childbirth unnecessarily. Over 3 million children died before their fifth birthday in 2010, said the report.
There are also reasons to doubt whether poverty can be satisfactorily measured purely by considering income levels. In particular, says UNICEF, statistics often miss the plight of poor urban children. Over a third of children in urban areas, says the agency, never get birth certificates, which means they are invisible to authorities and can’t get into social programmes. This rises to half of all children in parts of Africa and Asia, two of the world’s regions seeing the fastest migration from rural to urban areas. ‘An increasing number of children living in slums and shantytowns are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in the world,’ says UNICEF director Anthony Lake, ‘deprived of the most basic services and denied the right to thrive.’
Reuters, 19 Feb 2012; Huffington Post, 28 Feb 2012; Himalayan Times, 29 Feb 2012; Pakistan Today, 16 February 2012