In a recent Guardian article Jason Hickel argues that the west needs to de-develop in order to have any hope of meeting the UN goal of eradicating world poverty. He specifically says:

Growth has been the main object of development for the past 70 years, despite the fact that it’s not working. Since 1980, the global economy has grown by 380%, but the number of people living in poverty on less than $5 (£3.20) a day has increased by more than 1.1 billion. That’s 17 times the population of Britain. So much for the trickle-down effect...

The article quotes an earlier piece by Hickel that says, more specifically:

It will take 100 years for the world's poorest to earn $1.25 a day.

But his analysis is, apparently, specifically contradicted by the respected Hans Rosling. For example see this link to a recent video about the UN goals where he points out that poverty is declining quickly and the UN goal should be easy to meet.

So, who is right? Is poverty getting worse or is it getting better?

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    "has increased by more than 1.1 billion" - is this adjusted for population growth (both in absolute value, and especially localized to poor nations whose economy did NOT grow?) – user5341 Oct 12 '15 at 16:46
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    You haven't presented a contradiction, in that Rosling says the UN goal can easily be met, and Hickel says meeting the UN goal is inadequate. They're in disagreement over what definition of "poverty" to work with, and perhaps their predictions to 2030, not about the past data. As such I don't see how the claim can be assessed other than to agree or disagree with a particular definition of "poverty". – Steve Jessop Oct 13 '15 at 4:13
  • @SteveJessop Hickel specifically says reducing extreme poverty will take 100 years on the same definition the Rosling (and the UN) uses. That's a contradiction. Plus, the fact that Hickel has to use a different definition the the widely accepted one undermines his point. – matt_black Oct 13 '15 at 8:25
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    Obviously it's up to you, but I think the question would be much easier to answer if it were about objective claims (for example, the number or proportion of people with particular income at particular dates), rather than a value judgement "is it getting better or worse?". The latter requires choosing a particular timeframe and definition of poverty, which the UN has done and on which Hickel disagrees. Choice of metrics is what he's talking about, so your question to a large extent amounts to "do the UN's metrics reflect poverty?" – Steve Jessop Oct 13 '15 at 17:10
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    @SteveJessop I think a good skeptical analysis would point out that there is a widely agreed definition of extreme poverty and that the answer with that definition is clear. It would also point out that those who disagree have to use a different definition, which is normally regarded as a cheap rhetorical trick in arguments unless there is a compelling logic or evidence that the standard definition is wrong. – matt_black Oct 14 '15 at 9:00

Halving extreme poverty from 1990 to 2015 is the #1 Millenium Development Goal (and the Sustainable development goals aim to eradicate it completely by 2030). Specifically, target 1A for the MDG is:

Target 1A: Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day

This means US$1.25 in 2005 prices or, equivalently, $1.00 in 1996 prices.

Progress to this target is significant in most of the world. According to World Bank figures, the number of people living from less than $1.25 per day has dropped significantly, both in relative and in absolute terms. The figure below is from Wikimedia Commons, based on data from the World Bank:

Progress to Millenium Development Target 1A
Figure source: Wikimedia Commons

Graph of global population living on under 1, 1.25 and 2 equivalent of 2005 US dollars a day (red) and as a proportion of world population (blue) from 1981 to 2008 based on data from The World Bank

The figure shows that the fraction of the world population living of less than $1.15/day has dropped from more than 50% in 1981, to 22.4% in 2008. I don't know what model or baseline Hickel used, but the claim that it will take 100 years seems inconsistent with trends up to 2008.

However, the figure also shows that the trend for the absolute number of people living from less than $2/day is not as clear as the trend for the lower treshholds. So, this data neither contradicts nor confirms his claim that the number of people living off less than $5/day is increasing by more than 1 billion people.

The World Bank data above go only up to 2008. A more recent UN MDG report notes that the number of people living of less than $1.25 per day was 1.2 billion in 2008, 1.0 billion in 2011, and a projected 840 million in 2015. So, no support for Hickels claim here either, although again there are no figures for the number of people living of less than $5 per day.

There are, of course, other ways to measure poverty. In an article here, Hickel claims (among many other things) that the UN definition is flawed and that other definitions paint a less optimistic picture.


See also:

  • Nice analysis. I suspect, though, you have the old MDG. The new, recently set, target is to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. – matt_black Oct 12 '15 at 13:25
  • @matt_black I suppose you are referring to the Sustainable Development Goals? – gerrit Oct 12 '15 at 13:59
  • Yes. I may have misnamed them but the SDGs are the successor to the MDGs. – matt_black Oct 12 '15 at 14:00
  • I wonder how these graphs look like when you take inflation into acount – PlasmaHH Oct 12 '15 at 15:26
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    @PlasmaHH It's in 2005 prices. Added this to the article. – gerrit Oct 12 '15 at 15:45

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