COMMENTARY: Poverty and population: the crucial links

Posted: 4 April 2007

Author: Lester R. Brown

The twenty-first century began on an inspiring note when the countries that belong to the United Nations adopted the goal of cutting the number of people living in poverty in half by 2015. And as of 2005 [the last year for which there are reported figures], the world is ahead of schedule for reaching this goal. But not all regions are benefitting.

There are two big reasons for the apparent success: China and India. China's economic growth of 9 per cent a year over the last quarter-century and India's acceleration to close to 6 per cent a year over the last decade are together lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.

In China, the number of people living in poverty dropped from 648 million in 1981 to 218 million in 2001, the greatest reduction in poverty in history. India is also making impressive progress on the economic front. Under the dynamic leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who took office in 2004, poverty is being attacked directly by upgrading infrastructure at the village level. Targeted investments are aimed at the poorest of the poor. If the international community actively reinforces this effort in reform-minded India, hundreds of millions more could be lifted out of poverty.

It is time for the international community to make sure that India has the resources needed to maintain the momentum it has built. With India now on the move economically, the world can then begin to concentrate intensively on the remaining poverty concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and a scattering of smaller countries in Latin America and Central Asia.

Several countries in Southeast Asia are making impressive gains as well, including Thailand, Viet Nam, and Indonesia. Barring any major economic setbacks, these gains in Asia virtually ensure that the UN Millennium Development Goal for reducing poverty by 2015 will be reached.

Bad news

That is the good news. The bad news is that sub-Saharan Africa - with 750 million people - is sliding deeper into poverty. Hunger, illiteracy, and disease are on the march, offsetting some of the gains in China and India. Africa, in particular, needs special attention.

Many countries that have experienced rapid population growth for several decades are showing signs of demographic fatigue. Countries struggling with the simultaneous challenge of educating growing numbers of children, creating jobs for swelling ranks of young job seekers, and dealing with the environmental effects of population growth are stretched to the limit. When a major new threat arises - such as the HIV epidemic - governments often cannot cope.

Problems routinely managed in industrial societies are becoming full-scale humanitarian crises in developing ones. The rise in deaths in many African countries marks a tragic new development in world demography. In the absence of a concerted effort by national governments and the international community to accelerate the shift to smaller families, events in many countries could spiral out of control, leading to more death and to spreading political instability and economic decline. There is an alternative to this bleak prospect, and that is to help countries that want to slow their population growth to do so quickly.

Population factor

In an increasingly integrated world, eradicating poverty and stabilizing population are national security issues. Slowing population growth helps eradicate poverty and its distressing symptoms, and eradicating poverty helps slow population growth. With time running out, the urgency of moving simultaneously on both fronts is clear.

In addition to the goal of cutting the number of people living in poverty in half by 2015, the other UN Millennium Development Goals include cutting the number who are hungry in half, achieving universal primary school education, providing access to safe drinking water for all, and reversing the spread of infectious diseases, especially HIV and malaria. Closely related to these are the goals of reducing maternal mortality by three fourths and under-five child mortality by two thirds.

While goals for cutting poverty in half by 2015 appear to be running slightly ahead of schedule, those for halving the number of hungry are not. The number of children with a primary school education appears to be increasing substantially, however, largely on the strength of progress in India. And mortality of children under five fell from 15 million in 1980 to 11 million in 2003 and is expected to continue falling.

The steps needed to eradicate poverty and accelerate the shift to smaller families are clear. They include filling several funding gaps, including those needed to reach universal primary education; to fight infectious diseases, such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria; to provide reproductive health care; and to contain the HIV epidemic. Collectively, the initiatives discussed are estimated to cost $68 billion a year in addition to what is already being spent.

Education and health

The heaviest investments in this effort centre on education and health, which are central to both human capital development and population stabilization. Education includes both universal primary education and a global campaign to eradicate adult illiteracy.

Health care includes the basic interventions involved in controlling infectious diseases, beginning with childhood vaccinations. Adopting the basic health care programme outlined in the 2001 Report of the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health to the World Health Organization would save an estimated 8 million lives per year by 2010. These are the keys to breaking out of the poverty trap.

For the first time in history we have the technologies and financial resources to eradicate poverty. Helping low-income countries break out of the demographic trap is a highly profitable investment for the world's affluent nations. Industrial-country investments in education, health, and school lunches are in a sense a humanitarian response to the plight of the world's poorest countries. But more fundamentally, they are investments that will shape the world in which our children will live.

This article is adapted from Chapter 7, 'Eradicating Poverty, Stabilizing Population,' in Lester Brown's book 'Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble' (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), available on-line here

Additional data and information sources at www.earthpolicy.org

Note: The Plan B budget for Additional Annual Funding Needed to Reach Basic Social Goals Funding is as follows:

$12 billion Universal primary education$4 billion Eradication of adult illiteracy$6 billion School lunch programs for 44 poorest countries$4 billion Assistance to preschool children and pregnant women in 44 poorest countries$7 billion Reproductive health and family planning$33 billion Universal basic health care$2 billion Closing the condom gap

$68 billion TOTAL--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------