The Hidden Global Poverty Problem

Ed Barbier

The upcoming semi-annual IMF/World Bank meetings will no doubt be calling attention to a slew of recent reports that suggest that we are winning the war on global poverty.    The latest, from the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, found that a multi-dimensional index of widespread poverty declined significantly in 18 of 22 developing countries, which contain over two billion people.  This is good news for the World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, who declared just a year ago, that the world could end poverty by 2030, if the right mix of development and aid policies is adopted by the international community.

However, as I pointed out in a policy paper, also written for the World Bank, the renewed optimism over “ending” global poverty will be short-lived, unless the world is prepared to address an important, and seemingly intractable, “hidden” dimension to this problem.

Since 1950, the estimated population in developing economies on “fragile lands” has doubled.  These fragile environments are prone to land degradation, and consist of upland areas, forest systems and drylands that suffer from low agricultural productivity, and areas that present significant constraints for intensive agriculture. Today, nearly 1.3 billion people – almost a fifth of the world’s population – live in such areas in low and middle income economies.  Almost half of the people in these fragile environments (631 million) consist of the rural poor, who throughout the developing world outnumber the poor living on favored lands by 2 to 1.

In addition, around 430 million people in developing countries live in remote rural areas.  These are locations with poor market access, requiring five or more hours to reach a market town of 5,000 or more.  Of the rural populations in such remote regions, nearly half are found in less favored areas, which are semi and semi-arid regions characterized by frequent moisture stress that limits agricultural production.  Again, people in remote rural regions tend to be some of the poorest in the developing world.

To put these numbers in perspective, the total population in the richest countries of the world is around 850 million.  In contrast, as noted above, 1.3 billion people in the fragile environments in developing countries, and 430 million people inhabit remote rural areas.

The clustering of rural populations in less-favored areas and fragile environments is also likely to continue into the foreseeable future, given current rural population and poverty trends in developing economies.   Although from 1981 to 2005 the number of extreme poor globally declined from 1.9 billion to 1.4 billion, current development policies are not winning the war on poverty in the rural areas of low and middle income countries.  First, despite rapid global urbanization, the rural population of developing regions continues to grow, at just over 1.0% per year in recent decades.  Second, around three-quarters of the developing world’s poor still live in rural areas, even allowing for the higher cost of living facing the poor in urban areas. In general, about twice as many poor people live in rural than in urban areas in the developing world.  As a consequence, rural populations in poor countries are growing, rural poverty is endemic, and substantial spatial poverty traps are widespread.

Overcoming such spatial poverty traps and alleviating rural poverty in many developing economies will therefore require a much more robust strategy than current global economic development efforts.  Specific policies need to be targeted at the poor where they live, especially the rural poor clustered in fragile environments and remote areas. This will require involving the poor in these areas in payment for ecosystem services, targeting investments directly to the rural poor, reducing their dependence on exploiting environmental resources, and tackling their lack of access to affordable credit, insurance, land, and transport.  Where possible, efforts should be made to boost rural employment opportunities, especially for those poor households dependent on outside labor employment.

Clearly, global poverty trends are moving in the right direction.  But unless a serious effort is made at this semi-annual IMF/World Bank, first, to acknowledge the “hidden” global poverty problem, and second, to take these concrete policy steps to address this problem, then it is rather premature to be predicting the end of global poverty in 20 years time.

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3 Responses to “The Hidden Global Poverty Problem”

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  2. Felipe P. Manteiga says:

    Appreciate and agree with inescapable “fragile” logic, another element in the index for failed states. Working in Haiti (or in Nepal) I have noticed many analysts seem to ignore this basic distinction. Schemes to move people from ridge to valley, reforesting the high lands and shifting intense agriculture to the milder slopes and flat lands (often hard to find) conveys adapting minds to unknown settings….but most of these fragile land countries, and deepening desertification regions, are expelling migrants–so it can be done.

    Unfortunately, in many cases, the local population are willing but the extraneous helpers doubt. Major confrontation with green experts (and I thought green) on the use of anything that worked (including agrochemicals) to bump up yields in intense agriculture. Yes, this is an important contribution.

  3. Timothy Gawne says:

    This is a long overdue topic, kudos for addressing it. But, with respect, you have missed an important point.

    It is likely that poverty in the overpopulated third-world is even worse than this. I have heard reports that about half of India’s population is chronically malnourished, and indeed, it seems as if population growth there is finally slowing down because people are dying of malnutrition-related diseases and women are having trouble bringing a pregnancy to bear. Recent research has concluded that in much of the third world living standards are below Medieval Europe! (see “British Economic Growth 1270-1870”, by S. Broadberry, B. Campbell, A, Klein, M. Overton, and B. van Leeuwen, 2010).

    I think the big issue is this: the rich in the developed countries want to use outsourcing to, and immigration from, poor countries, in order to increase their profits by driving down their labor costs. They therefore have waged a propaganda campaign that third-world poverty is ending, things are fine, everyone is becoming middle-class, so no need to worry about long-term wage depression the problem will solve itself. This provides short-term cover for outsourcing and immigration, but it papers over the real problems and prevents a realistic attempt at ending poverty worldwide. How can we organize to fight something that the powers that be insist either doesn’t exist or is about to end anyhow?

    For decades now I have been reading that Mexico is fine, they have a growing middle class, wages are going up, they will soon be as rich as the Canadians so the issues of trade and immigration will soon end don’t worry about it nothing to see here move along. Well, Mexico wasn’t doing great, was it? Mexican wages are now below China’s, and the country is in danger of becoming a failed state. I think one of the biggest reasons for this is that official denial of the problems prevented any systematic attempt at solving them when it would have been relatively easy.

    Also, something that we should never forget: one person’s poverty is another’s ‘affordable labor costs’. The rich have a powerful incentive to promote and extend poverty, and they are often not shy about acting on this…