Can the world end poverty by 2030, the target set by the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development? The UN General Assembly recently reaffirmed this deadline but conceded that meeting it will require “accelerating global actions” to tackle poverty’s causes. As the international community explores new solutions, lessons from the past could be instructive.
Poverty reduction has been central to development policy for decades. During the 15 years of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the predecessor to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the percentage of people living in poverty – defined as less than $1.90 a day – declined significantly, from nearly 27% in 2000, when the MDGs began, to about 9% in 2017.
At first glance, the rate of poverty reduction in the first few years of the SDGs has also been impressive. Between January 2016 and June 2018, an estimated 83 million people were lifted out of extreme poverty. And yet, to remain on track to meet the 2030 target date, about 120 million people should have escaped poverty during that period. Despite the welcome gains, the pace of progress has been less than satisfactory.
In a recent paper co-authored for the journal World Development, we examined what factors drive successful poverty reduction. Using poverty statistics from developing countries during the MDGs era, we assessed whether countries with higher levels of income poverty – that is, more people living on less money – experienced faster reductions in their poverty rates than economies with lower income-poverty levels. Using limits of $1.25 and $2 per person per day, we found that poverty tended to decrease faster in countries that started out poorer.
But these findings, while positive, tell only part of the story. In many countries, the end of poverty remains a distant goal. For example, at the current pace of poverty reduction, we estimate that Mali, where 86% of the population lived on less than $1.25 a day in 1990, will require another 31 years to eradicate extreme poverty altogether. But even in Ecuador, where only 7% of the population lived on less than $1.25 a day in 1990, eliminating poverty will take at least another decade.
The differing experiences of countries in Africa and Asia illustrate that while adoption of the MDG agenda did accelerate poverty reduction, the degree of progress has varied widely. In the early 1990s, poverty levels in Nigeria, Lesotho, Madagascar, and Zambia were similar to those in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. But by the time the MDGs ended in 2015, the Asian countries had reduced levels of poverty dramatically; the African countries had not.