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Getting to Zero in the fight against extreme poverty

Lisa Horner's picture

We could be the generation that puts an end to extreme poverty. This is a bold claim that often prompts raised eyebrows and murmurs of disbelief. But it is an idea that Save the Children, The World Bank, and others have been reiterating as we engage with the international process to define a new  framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – a set of concrete human development targets that have united global efforts to fight poverty since 2002, and are set to expire in 2015. 

But while ending extreme poverty is, of course, a laudable vision, is it a feasible proposition?  Could we really be the generation that achieves it, finishing the job that the MDGs started?

These are questions that Save the Children set out to explore through research and analysis, published today in a new report, Getting to Zero, to coincide with meetings that will discuss the post-2015 framework at the UN General Assembly in New York. 

To complement research that shows that tackling inequality will be critical for eliminating extreme income poverty by 2030, our analysis focuses on four non-income dimensions of extreme poverty: preventable under-five child mortality, poor quality education (proxied by primary school completion rates), and lack of access to safe water and basic sanitation. 

We examine the extent to which poverty eradication could be accelerated through tackling two key barriers to poverty reduction – income inequality and poor governance – through projecting potential future rates of change under three scenarios:

1. Business as usual: Economic growth as predicted by the IMF, current income inequality and income poverty trends.
2. Tackling income inequality: As above, but with income inequality falling to lowest levels that countries have seen since the 1980s – in reality a fairly modest scenario.
3. Tackling income inequality and improving governance: As scenario 2, but with improvements in measures of government effectiveness and accountability (again, to a degree that countries have seen in recent history).

So what did we find?  In short, under business as usual conditions, we can’t expect to eliminate any of our focus dimensions of poverty by 2030.  However, reducing income inequality and improving governance accelerates rates of change considerably, bringing us to within 1 to 6 percentage points of zero or 100 percent attainment targets. 

For child mortality, this could mean the saving of an additional 1.8 million lives a year by 2030, bringing global child mortality rates down from a projected rate of 30 deaths per 1000 live births in 2030 to 20 (our proposed threshold for preventable mortality). For education, it could mean boosting the percentage of children who stay in primary school to the last grade from 94 to 98 percent. For basic sanitation, it could increase access from 83 percent of the global population to 94 percent, reaching a massive 920 million extra people. And for water, it could mean that 99 percent, rather than 95 percent, of the world’s population have access to improved water facilities by 2030, to the benefit of 280 million people.

While hugely positive, our projections are global averages, and mask significant differences between rates of change in different regions, countries and socio-economic groups.  Breaking the global projections down into their component regions, Sub-Saharan Africa is furthest behind in the global march towards zero.  If successful in making the necessary changes in inequality and governance that our scenarios require, the region would need to accelerate child mortality reduction by a further 4 percent a year to reach the 20/1000 threshold by 2030. For water, a further 1 percent acceleration will be needed to get to 100 percent, and for sanitation, 2 percent. Again, these are averages, and some countries in the region will need to accelerate change even further, particularly fragile and conflict-affected states.

While this will, of course, be challenging, the potential to accelerate progress dramatically in short periods of time has been demonstrated by a number of countries in the region. For example, Rwanda and Botswana achieved an average reduction in child mortality of over 10 percent a year between 2000 and 2011, and Liberia, Senegal and Malawi of over 6 percent.  For sanitation, Malawi slashed open defecation rates by 80 percent between 1990 and 2011, achieving an average annual reduction of nearly 8 percent. Angola and Ethiopia both achieved average annual reduction rates of over 3.5 percent over the same period. 

Achieving rates of change of this magnitude requires focused and effective poverty reduction programmes. These must aim to ensure universal access to basic services, infrastructure and opportunities, with a focus on interventions that make the biggest difference in the lives of poor and marginalized people. Discriminatory social norms and values that lie at the root of economic, social and political inequality must also be targeted.

So, returning to our original question, could we be the generation that ends extreme poverty? Our analysis suggests that the answer, in theory, is yes. 

What we need now is a strong and ambitious global development framework that is capable of translating this theory into reality. This must contain not only zero goals, but also concrete targets to spur the action that we know will be needed to achieve them – to tackle inequality, improve governance and strengthen development partnerships so that even the world’s poorest and most marginalized groups can get to zero.