Making the population-poverty connection

Posted: 3 November 2010

Author: Lester R. Brown

The 21st century began on an inspiring note: the United Nations set a goal of reducing the share of the world's population living in extreme poverty by half by 2015. By early 2007 the world looked to be on track to meet this goal, but as the economic crisis unfolds and the outlook darkens, the world will have to intensify its poverty reduction effort.

Among countries, China is the big success story in reducing poverty. The number of Chinese living in extreme poverty dropped from 685 million in 1990 to 213 million in 2007. With little growth in its population, the share of people living in poverty in China dropped from 60 per cent to 16 per cent, an amazing achievement by any standard.
India's progress is mixed. Between 1990 and 2007, the number of Indians living in poverty actually increased slightly from 466 million to 489 million while the share living in poverty dropped from 51 per cent to 42 per cent. Despite its economic growth, averaging 9 per cent a year for the last four years, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's support of a grassroots effort to eradicate poverty, India still has a long way to go.

Brazil, on the other hand, has succeeded in reducing poverty with its Bolsa Familia program, an effort strongly supported by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. This is a conditional assistance programme that offers poor mothers up to $35 a month if they keep their children in school, have them vaccinated, and make sure they get regular physical checkups. Between 1990 and 2007, the share of the population living in extreme poverty dropped from 15 to 5 per cent. Serving 11 million families, nearly one fourth of the country's population, it has in the last five years raised incomes among the poor by 22 per cent. By comparison, incomes among the rich rose by only 5 per cent. Rosani Cunha, the programme's former director, observed, "There are very few countries that reduce inequality and poverty at the same time."

Several countries in Southeast Asia have made impressive gains as well, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. These gains in Asia seemed to ensure that the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving poverty by 2015 would be reached. Indeed, in a 2008 assessment of progress in reaching the MDGs, the World Bank reported that all regions of the developing world with the notable exception of sub-Saharan Africa were on track to cut the proportion of people living in extreme poverty in half by 2015.

This upbeat assessment was soon modified, however. At the beginning of 2009, the World Bank reported that between 2005 and 2008 the incidence of poverty increased in East Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa largely because of higher food prices, which hit the poor hard. This was compounded by the global economic crisis that dramatically expanded the ranks of the unemployed at home and reduced the flow of remittances from family members working abroad. The number the Bank classifies as extremely poor — people living on less than $1.25 a day — increased by at least 130 million. The Bank observed that "higher food prices during 2008 may have increased the number of children suffering permanent cognitive and physical injury caused by malnutrition by 44 million."

Sliding into extreme poverty

Malnourished boy Burkina Faso
Malnourished boy Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso's government says 23 per cent acute malnutrition is not a crisis. Aid agencies say the government is the obstacle to making progress. Photo © Nicholas Reader/IRIN

Sub-Saharan Africa, with 820 million people, is sliding deeper into poverty. Hunger, illiteracy, and disease are on the march, partly offsetting the gains in countries like China and Brazil. The failing states as a group are also backsliding; an interregional tally of the Bank's fragile states is not encouraging since extreme poverty in these countries is over 50 per cent — higher than in 1990.

In addition to attacking poverty, other MDGs adopted in 2000 include reducing the share of those who are hungry by half, achieving universal primary school education, halving the share of people without access to safe drinking water, 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.

On the food front, the number of hungry is climbing. The long-term decline in the number of hungry and malnourished that characterized the last half of the twentieth century was reversed in the mid-1990s — rising from 825 million to roughly 850 million in 2000 and to over 1 billion in 2009. A number of factors contributed to this, but none more important than the massive diversion of grain to fuel ethanol distilleries in the United States. The US grain used to produce fuel for cars in 2009 would feed 340 million people for one year.

The goal of halving the share of hungry by 2015 is not within reach if we continue with business as usual. In contrast, the number of children with a primary school education does appear to be on the rise, but with much of the progress concentrated in a handful of larger countries, including India, Bangladesh, and Brazil.

When the United Nations set the MDGs, it unaccountably omitted any population or family planning goals, even though as a January 2007 report from a UK All Party Parliamentary Group pointed out, "the MDGs are difficult or impossible to achieve with current levels of population growth in the least developed countries and regions." Although it came belatedly, the United Nations has since approved a new target that calls for universal access to reproductive health care by 2015.

Countries everywhere have little choice but to strive for an average of two children per couple. There is no feasible alternative. Any population that increases indefinitely will eventually outgrow its natural life support systems. Any that decreases continually over the long term will eventually disappear.

In an increasingly integrated world with a lengthening list of failing states, eradicating poverty and stabilizing population have become national security issues. Slowing population growth helps eradicate poverty and its distressing symptoms, and, conversely, eradicating poverty helps slow population growth. With little time left to arrest the deterioration of the economy's natural support systems, the urgency of moving simultaneously on both fronts is clear.

This Commentary is adapted from Chapter 7, "Eradicating Poverty and Stabilizing Population" in Lester Brown's Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009). This book is available on-line at

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