Where do the bottom billion live?

India poverty map

Since its publication a couple of years ago, Paul Collier’s excellent The Bottom Billion has helped to reshape the development debate. Collier argues that although many poor countries have made impressive strides in recent years, a hard core of about 50 countries – home to some of the world’s “bottom billion” poorest people – seem to be trapped, and are being left ever further behind.

Ideas such as these have proved persuasive in development circles, fuelling an increasing focus on what needs to be done to help these 50 or so “bottom billion”  countries (although this hasn’t always been reflected in actual aid disbursements).

Some of the concern is humanitarian, but some also is driven by security worries: In many cases, these are so-called fragile states that are – or risk becoming – breeding grounds for terror and conflict.

Now, however, there are signs of a bit of a backlash, notably in the form of a paper from researcher Andy Sumner. He argues that if we focus on the poorest countries, we’ll actually miss most of the world’s poor.

According to his research, about three-quarters of the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people live today in what the World Bank classes as middle-income countries (MICs), for example India. Against that, only 370 million of them live in the 39 so-called low-income countries (LICs), mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. The contrast with the situation 20 years ago is striking: Back in 1990, Sumner estimates, about 93% of the world’s poorest people lived in low-income countries.

In short: Most of the world’s poor no longer live in what are regarded as poor countries.

Sumner’s paper has been grabbing attention – and generating debate – in development circles. As Duncan Green notes, the findings are “to some extent an artifice of country classification  … poor people live in roughly the same countries as in 1990, but those countries have got a little bit richer.” In effect, most Indians who were poor when India was classed as a low-income country were still poor when India was reclassified as a middle-income country.

Nevertheless, the findings do raise some interesting issues. As Owen Barder suggests, they may lead us to see poverty in a new way – not the result of insufficient development but rather of inequality. “The figures suggest that the biggest causes of poverty are not lack of development in the country as a whole, but political, economic and social marginalisation of particular groups in countries that are otherwise doing quite well,” he writes.

For Jonathan Glennie, that raises questions over who should take the lead in tackling poverty: “It is one thing transferring money to very poor countries,” he writes. “But to transfer cash to countries like China and India that not only have nuclear power and space programmes, but also have their own multi-billion dollar aid programmes, is quite another. Aid money is irrelevant to them – should the traditional donors therefore just leave them to it?”

 Useful links

 OECD work on fragile states and poverty reduction

 OECD Development Centre work on poverty reduction and social development

Perspectives on Global Development from the OECD Development Centre

Brian Keeley

2 comments to “Where do the bottom billion live?”

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  1. Ashok - 29/01/2014 Reply

    This is a fundamental problem of a disconnect between the ruling classes, and the majority of the population living near or below the poverty line in India.

    It is scandalous that India has it’s own aid programme where it funds development projects, yet there are more malnourished people in India than the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa! And DFID, the UK Govt’s development arm, has stopped funding projects in India precisely because of this. This is simply the ruling classes wanting to see themselves as rich patrons of poorer areas of the world, an ego boost, rather than seeing the grinding poverty on their own doorstep.

    This economist article below goes far to explain why…


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