There has been much discussion around the World Bank on the choice of a "global poverty target" that can be used to measure global progress against poverty. To be successful, such a target needs to be (a) simple to understand, and (b) relevant to all World Bank client countries.
(based on discussions with Chico Ferreira, Ambar Narayan, Carolina Sanchez and especially, Aaditya Mattoo)
This is part I of a three-part series.
Like all fields of socio-economic measurement, there is scope for debate on how best to assess development progress. There is often much to be learnt from such debate.
But the debates are not always politically neutral. Some observers chose only to look critically at data and methods when the results diverge from their political priors. And some try to undermine evidence that does not fit their priors by questioning the motives of those producing that evidence. A generous interpretation might construe this as some “postmodern” approach to data, but on closer inspection it often looks more like a debating ploy to make up for weak substantive arguments.
In his Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations Adam Smith pointed to the social-inclusion role of a linen shirt in 18th century Europe:
“A linen shirt … is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct.”
This passage has often been used to justify the view that poverty is not absolute but relative—that certain socially-specific expenditures are essential for social inclusion, on top of basic needs for nutrition and physical survival.
The way this idea is implemented in practice is to set a “relative poverty line” that is a constant proportion of average income for the country and date in question. That is how poverty is measured in most of Western Europe. By contrast, poverty measures in developing countries have almost invariably used absolute lines, which aim to have a fixed real value over time. The World Bank’s international “$1 a day” poverty lines also aim to be absolute lines across countries, using purchasing power parities from the International Comparison Program.
A colleague from the Asian Development Bank visited the other day to talk about a study he is doing on Asia’s middle class. Yet this is not an area we have focused on in the World Bank’s East Asia region – perhaps at our cost. I quickly googled the topic and discovered a rapidly growing literature, including a paper each by Martin Ravallion and Nancy Birdsall
The international community has endorsed the Millenium Development Goal of reducing the poverty rate in the developing world by 50% over the 25 years, 1990-2015. While the target is arbitrary, it is nonetheless important to have a stretch goal like this to challenge us all to make the world a better place. To measure progress, naturally we need pretty good estimates of global poverty. The World Bank is the leading bean counter in this exercise. It just today released new estimates of global poverty that have the potential to illuminate the progress, but also the potential to confuse a lot of people. The research department of the World Bank has changed its global poverty line from $1 per day to $1.25 per day and has found about 468 million more poor people than it had previously estimated. About 135 million of these newly found poor are in China. How does one make sense of these new numbers? Here are some pointers: