In this hour long programme Hans Rosling asks how we can eradicate extreme poverty in 15 years, which is goal number 1.1 of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to which 193 nations signed up to in September 2015, in New York.
While recognising that relative poverty exists within rich and poor countries alike, the programme focuses on extreme poverty, defined as people living on less than $1 a day, a level at which daily life involves a struggle to get enough food to eat.
Hans (he’s so accessible I’m sure he wouldn’t mind first name terms) starts by putting poverty in historical context, by looking at how wealth (measured by GDP per capita) has changed over the last 200 years. To do this, Hans converts the GDP figures into the amount each person earns per day, ranging from those who live on $1 a day (as many do in Malawi) to those who live on $100 a day (as most people in Sweden do). As shown in the still below – only about 12% of the world’s population today live in extreme poverty.
The story of the last 200 years is that we’ve basically moved from a global situation characterised by extremes of wealth and poverty (broadly speaking 1800-1970) to one in which most people world now live in ‘the middle’ in terms of global wealth distribution. In the video clip below, Hans tells this story.
The biggest shift has occurred in the last 50 years – in the 1970s, 50% of the worlds population lived in absolute poverty (2 billion amongst a 4 billion global population). In 2015, even with world population growing by 3 million to 7+ billion, only 1 billion, or 12.5% of the world’s population live in poverty.
So the best-fit picture of today’s global population isn’t one of a massive divide between the rich and the poor, but one of the expanding or ‘big middle’** – Most people in the world today earn between $1 to $10 a day, and many of these have transitioned out of absolute poverty within the last few decades.
Dollar Street – A Global Family Portrait.
To illustrate the differences in living standards around the globe, Hans draws on a number of case studies.
$1/ day – Malawi – Here the focus is on a couple with eleven children. They are basically subsistence farmers and have a small field of maize which they rely on for their basic food. The field is so small they have to endure a hunger season, during which they only eat once a day, and the children fall sick because of lack of food. In a poor season (As shown later in the video), when the rains are irregular, the food may only last for half the year, so the hungry season is long!)
The children go to school, but there are no school meals, so there’s no food until bed time on some school days. The family struggle to pay for the ‘hidden costs’ of education such as school uniforms and books.
There are no jobs in the area, but the families keep grafting – the father turns old bits of tin into watering cans and the mother makes dumplings, two products which are sold to neighbours. However, local people are too poor to be anything other than occasional customers.
In the household there is no electricity or running water and everyone sleeps on the floor, no mattresses. The house is built from perishable materials and once a week the mother has to spread fresh mud on the walls and ceiling to stop the house falling apart. The husband is gradually building a brick house, but it will take him four years to complete it.
These people are literally struggling to build their future bit by bit.
Countries in which significant numbers of people live on less than $1 a day include Burundi and Malawi.
The Big Middle – Up to $10 a day
To illustrate where the majority of the world’s population now live in income terms, we go to Cambodia to focus on some new arrivals to the ‘big middle’ – We focus on a family who live about an hour away from the capital Phnom Penh, but are still close enough to feel the benefits of its development.
Their house is made from more durable material – bricks and plastic/ iron sheets, they have clean water, bicycles, a little car, beds with mattresses, radios, TVs, and electricity.
The Family’s living conditions are far from easy but there is no hungry season like in Malawi, and they have earned enough to buy various life-changing technologies – such as a water pump so is there more time to devote to paid work.
The nearby capital city Phnom Penh is at the heart of an economic boom, mainly thanks to textile exports, and the benefits reach a long way into rural areas.
The father in this family has benefited from this – migration to the city has meant there are fewer farmers, so he now makes $300 a month from growing and selling grass which people feed to their cattle, and he has bought a small bike so he can deliver more efficiently.
However, the mother is currently pregnant with twins, and one of them is upside down…they want a cesarean and this will cost them $500 which will mean they need to borrow money, a price which could put them back into dire poverty for years to come as they struggle to pay it back.
The crucial thing which prevents this from happening is that the family qualify for Cambodia’s recently introduced free health care, available for free for the poorest families only. This is assessed by means of a ‘Poor Card’ – people are asked a number of questions about their standard of living (which is checked later) and if they score below a certain amount of points they qualify for free health care for the whole family, which ensures that complications in childbirth do not result in financial catastrophe.
Among the many countries included in the ‘big middle’ are The Philippines, Columbia, Rwanda, and Bangladesh. However, there are obviously differences, and if you look carefully, these are not all ‘equally poor’ (but this isn’t expanded on).
How to eradicate extreme Poverty
It’s amazing how much life is improving for s many people in so many ways – this is the greatest story in human history, and if we want to lift the remaining billion people out of extreme poverty we need to learn from the lessons of the majority of countries which have lifted themselves out of poverty in the last century.
The basic lesson is that all of these countries have invested in human welfare, in such things as public health care systems and education, which has reduced the child mortality rate, and the birth rate, and altogether this has resulted in economic growth.
Hans demonstrated this by looking at the historical relationship between the child mortality rate and GDP per Capita from 1800-2015. (The child mortality rate depends on many things, such as improved health, education and gender empowerment, so it acts as a proxy indicator for these other aspects of human progress).
The general trend is that in many countries, the child mortality rate goes down first, which is followed by sustained economic growth for many years. It seems that once the Child Mortality rate gets to about 10%, this is when economic take off occurs. This happened in at least the following countries:
- South Korea
In short, the lesson of how to end poverty in 15 years – invest in human progress even when resources are limited.
The video rounds off with going back to Malawi to demonstrate that all is needed to lift many farmers out of poverty is investment in small scale irrigation systems, so crops can be easily watered when rains are irregular. A dam would transform the lives of small farmers in remote areas by allowing them to grow not only more staple food, but also a greater diversity of crops which could be sold.
The investment required is relatively little, but who will pay? The private sector won’t, because there is no profit, and governments in poor countries are still too poor, so the third option is International Development Aid.
However, Development aid needs to be refocused away from the richer developing countries – Currently, countries such as India and China receive aid equivalent to $300 per person, but the poorest countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, receive only $100 per person. In short, aid is going to the wrong places.
Hans argues that we should perceive aid to end poverty not as charity, but as an investment. There are three basic arguments for this:
1. Extreme poverty breeds problems such as war and conflict.
2. If we lift people out of extreme poverty, they will become the customers of tomorrow, and possibly the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.
3. It is the most effective way of combating population growth – below $1 a day, the average number of babies per woman is five, above, it the average is 2 or less.
In conclusion, Hans suggests we would be mad not to end poverty in 15 years, and that compared to the other two problems the world faces: climate change and war and conflict, this goal is actually easy to achieve.
**Another way in which Hans illustrates the growth of the ‘big middle’ is by pointing out the following statistics:
80% of people have electricity at home? (the audience thought 40%)
83% have have got vaccinated against measles? (the audience thought 30% )
90% of girls out of ten go to primary school (in that age group) (the audience thought 40%).