Pakistani children stand outside their makeshift home near Karachi. CNS photo/Shahzaib Akber, EPA

Global poverty rates are falling, but it's not all good news, reports say

  • November 12, 2018

Over a 25-year span from 1990 to 2015 there has been a massive reduction in global poverty. 

We’ve gone from 1.9 billion people living in extreme poverty — less than $1.90 (US) per day — to 736 million in 2015. Measured in percentage terms, 36 per cent of humanity was poor in 1990. By 2015, absolute poverty was down to just 10 per cent worldwide, according to the World Bank.

This doesn’t mean we’re winning, or that Catholics can stop praying for the poor.

Pope Francis doesn’t care about the World Bank numbers. In his second annual message for the World Day of the Poor (Nov. 18), he worries about how the world is divided — how we’ve lost the instinct to care for one another; how the rich have walled themselves off from the poor.

“We are so trapped in a culture that induces us to look in the mirror and pamper ourselves, that we think that an altruistic gesture is enough, without the need to get directly involved,” Pope Francis laments. “Selfishness, pride, greed and injustice. These are evils as old as the human race itself, but also sins in which the innocent are caught up, with tragic effects at the level of social life.”

The Pope praises parishes and dioceses that responded to the first World Day of the Poor in 2017 with free meals aimed at bringing together the rich, the poor and the middle class. And he thanks the Catholic agencies that reach past national borders to work with poor communities in building a better life.

“When we find ways of drawing near to the poor, we know that the primacy belongs to God, who opens our eyes and hearts to conversion,” the Pope writes.

The raw numbers showing a drop in absolute poverty are undoubtedly good news, but there’s much more to it than that one chart with a plunging line, said University of Toronto professor emeritus of political science Richard Sandbrook. 

Sandbrook has spent years studying how the global economy produces poverty.

“If it’s taken out of context, it’s good news,” he told The Catholic Register. “But without the bad news as well. The bad news, of course, is that there’s growing inequality within countries and between the poorest and the richest countries. Inequality is not a small thing. 

“It isn’t enough to say, ‘Well, poverty is falling.’ Number one, poverty could have fallen much faster if the income distribution, the wealth distribution, had not become so much more unequal over the past 30 years.”

The World Bank makes exactly the same point in its most recent “Poverty and Shared Prosperity” report. The World Bank has decided poverty is relative to the society poor people live in and now applies higher poverty lines in middle-income countries.

“Most of the world’s poor now live in middle-income countries,” the World Bank said. “Nearly half the world (46 per cent) lives on less than $5.50 per day, a standard that defines poverty in a typical upper-middle-income country. A quarter of the world lives on less than US$3.20 per day.”

Add up the absolute poor living on less than $1.90, plus the relative poor in middle-income countries such as Brazil and South Africa, or even Canada, and 2.1 billion are poor.

Inequality can also be measured in geography. There have been economic miracles in East Asia (led by China) and now in South Asia (led by India). The plunging poverty numbers reflect economic growth in those two regions. But, of the world’s 28 poorest countries, 27 are in Sub-Saharan Africa. All these African countries have poverty rates above 30 per cent.

“You cannot write off Africa,” said Sadi Motsuenyane, former chief director of sustainable livelihoods with the Department of Social Development for the government of South Africa and 2018 Coady Chair in Social Justice at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. 

Development in African communities won’t happen with one-off charity or by applying abstract economic theories written up in academic journals, according to Motsuenyane.

“There’s development for, development with and development of,” she explains. “If it’s development for, you are doing things for people. If it’s development of, you are developing an area or you are developing a village, a community. You could be building roads. But the thing is, who are you doing it with?”

The poor have to be involved in making decisions about their own development so that “they own it, they support it, with whoever is supporting it,” Motsuenyane said.

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace is not going to dismiss the progress represented by numbers showing poverty trending downward, said Development and Peace advocacy and research director Elana Wright.

“Part of Development and Peace’s mission is to eradicate poverty. That shows definite progress,” she said. “We don’t want to just reduce poverty. We also want to reduce inequality, which is a bit more nuanced. If we look at the statistics that show income inequality around the world, it’s increasing at the same time as poverty is going down.”

Development and Peace runs traditional development programs in emerging countries that are now classed as middle income, such as Brazil and the Philippines. In both countries, even though people may have achieved the $1.90-a-day income level, the poor face violence and insecurity typical of countries with extreme inequality.

“What organizations like Development and Peace offer to Canadians is a feeling of hope that change is possible,” Wright said.

Change is necessarily political. Development and Peace doesn’t involve itself in party politics, but it is dedicated to democratic culture and ideals. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is working with the Congolese conference of Catholic bishops to teach communities how they can be involved in their own governance — how to demand respect, human rights and basic services from their governments.

“So they have the roads and the infrastructure they need to build small businesses and also to fight for freedom of expression, which is a huge problem in the DRC,” said Wright. “It’s really exciting to see the role of the Church in offering hope for a better Democratic Republic of Congo, which is one of the places you might think is one of the most hopeless.”

Development will never be just economics, said Sandbrook.

 “People don’t live by bread alone,” he said. “It’s certainly necessary, but it’s only one aspect of a human condition. You need a much broader perspective on these issues.”

Pope Francis had the same idea in his message for the 2018 World Day of the Poor: “Often it is precisely the poor who can break through our indifference, born of a worldly and narrow view of life. The cry of the poor is also a cry of hope that reveals the certainty of future liberation.”

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