Will the bottom billion always be with us?

Click to go to the Forum website
Click to go to the Forum website

I know a photographer who worked in the Egyptian oases at the time when the people living there became poor. Their wealth and number of possessions didn’t change, but with the arrival of television and other modern media, they suddenly learned that they were living in a backward, disadvantaged area. Until then, they’d believed that they had everything you needed for a good life – food, water, animals, plants, friends, feuds… But they didn’t have fridges, schools, and most of the other goods and services to be found in the city. At the same period, people who lived in a metropolitan slum would not have considered themselves rich just because they had a TV, electricity and most of the other things the Bedouin lacked.

Poverty then isn’t just a question of income. The newly-published 2013 UN Human Development Report looks at two measures: poverty defined in strictly monetary terms as living on less than $1.25 a day, and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative’s Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). The MPI has three dimensions and ten indicators, all equally weighted, which reflect some Millennium Development Goals and international standards of poverty. The three dimensions are health, education and living standards; while the indicators are nutrition, child mortality, years of schooling, school attendance, cooking fuel, sanitation, water, electricity, type of floor of the dwelling, and assets.

The data support the optimism of the UN report’s title “The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World”. More than 40 countries in the developing world have done better than expected in human development terms in recent decades, with their progress accelerating markedly over the past ten years. Of 22 countries having data on MPI poverty over time, 18 reduced MPI significantly, and most of them reduced multidimensional poverty faster than income poverty.

On current trends, half the 22 countries would eradicate MPI within 20 years and 18 within 41 years, but it would take 95 years for all 22 to eradicate multidimensional poverty.

What about the “bottom billion”, the poorest of the poor? In this article in 2010, Brian Keeley discussed Andy Sumner’s argument that if we focus on the poorest countries, we’ll actually miss most of the world’s poor. The new figures suggest that where the bottom billion live depends on whether you look at national averages, the subnational  level or the intensity of poverty experienced by each poor person.

At national level, the bottom billion are concentrated in the 30 poorest countries. But the situation can vary significantly from one region to another within a given country. For instance in Tanzania, 32.4% of the people in the Kilimanjaro region were poor in 2010, but the figure rises to 87.4% in the Dodoma region just 250 miles (400 km) away. Looking at 265 subnational regions, the bottom billion are spread across 44 countries.

The bottom billion by individual poverty profiles more than doubles the number of countries to 100. This is calculated by starting with people who are deprived in all 10 indicators. This gives 17 million in all, with India and Ethiopia having 4 million each. You then add people who are deprived in 95% of the indicators and so on until you reach 1 billion.

Surprisingly, 9.5% of the bottom billion live in upper Middle Income Countries, and 41,000 of the poorest bottom billion live in five High Income Countries. Unsurprisingly, 51.6% reside in South Asia, 32.7% reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 12.3% reside in East Asia and Pacific. Nearly 40% of the bottom billion poor reside in India.

But to get back to the optimism. Bangladesh was the original international “basket case” (a term used by the Henry Kissinger-led State Department in 1971). The image persists, but in reality Bangladesh is one of the three top performers in reducing MPI, along with Nepal and Rwanda. The Economist argues that it got out of the basket thanks to four factors: it improved the status of women; the Green Revolution and remittances boosted incomes; the government maintained social spending; and non-government organisations managed to scale up their programmes to work nationwide.

You may have noticed that The Economist doesn’t cite economic growth. The Human Development Report says something similar: “Economic growth alone does not automatically translate into human development progress. Pro-poor policies and significant investments in people’s capabilities  – through a focus on education, nutrition and health, and employment skills – can expand access to decent work and provide for sustained progress. The 2013 Report identifies four specific focuses for sustaining development momentum: enhancing equity; enabling participation of citizens, including youth; confronting environmental pressures; and managing demographic change.

These themes will also be discussed at the OECD Global Forum on Development on 4-5 April. The Forum will be looking at how the global economic landscape has changed, and with it, the understanding of what development and poverty are all about. For example the session on the multidimensional nature of poverty will highlight the links between poverty reduction, natural resource management and growth as issues that are central to social protection and pro-poor growth.

Useful links

The OECD Global Forum would like to hear your opinions on the major themes.

Click here to discuss: Post 2015: Effective partnerships for development in a changing world

Click here to discuss: Beyond Poverty reduction: The challenge of social cohesion in developing countries

Click here to discuss: Measuring poverty, well-being and progress: Innovative approaches and their implications for statistical capacity development

Click here to discuss: The global-national nexus and country-level policy actions

The 2010 edition of the OECD Development Centre’s Perspectives on Global Development: Shifting Wealth pioneered the topic of shifting wealth and the impact of emerging economies on the development of Low Income Countries, taken up in this year’s Human Development Report. The 2012 edition of Perspectives looking at the impact of shifting wealth on social cohesion has an extensive analysis of poverty trends and measures.

Patrick Love

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