The last quarter century saw remarkable progress against extreme poverty, globally. Between 1990 and 2013, the percentage of the world’s population living at or under $1.90/day fell from 35.3% to 10.7% - that is, from more than one in three people to approximately one in ten, planet-wide. Even in the shorter period between 2002 and 2013, the reduction was from 25.8% to 10.7%, meaning that about 850 million people moved out of extreme poverty during that decade alone.
Is poverty absolute or relative? When we think of (one-dimensional) income poverty, should we define the threshold that separates the poor from the non-poor as the cost of purchasing a fixed basket of goods and services that allows people to meet their basic needs? Or should we instead think of it as relative deprivation: as earning or consuming less than some given proportion of the country’s average living standard?
Could a parent’s decision to vaccinate a child depend on a free bag of lentils? The premise seems implausible:immunization can be a matter of life and death, and a bag of lentils is worth only a dollar. Yet a randomized controlled trial in India showed that a gift to parents of a 1 kg bag of lentils and a set of plates can dramatically raise the percentage of children protected against major disease (Banerjee et al. 2010). Providing a quality immunization camp alone increased the percentage of fully immunized children from 6% to 18%. The addition of the lentil and plate ‘incentives’ raised the figure to a whopping 39%. How can we explain the outsize effect of a gift of everyday household items?
Monday’s announcement of the 2017 Nobel Prize for economics, to Richard Thaler, for his groundbreaking work incorporating psychology into economic theory, was a victory not only for the University of Chicago Professor and co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, but for behaviorally-informed policy worldwide.
Equality of opportunity is a popular policy objective around the world. It is deeply embodied in the American Dream and has resonated with politicians ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Nelson Mandela. It is also connected to the World Bank’s goal of shared prosperity; individuals with low opportunities should have a chance of growing and prospering in life.
We know that fiscal policy can be harnessed to reduce inequality in low- and middle-income countries, but until now, we knew less about its ability to reduce poverty. Our recent volume looks at the revenue and spending of governments across eight low and middle income countries (Armenia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Indonesia, Jordan, Russia, South Africa and Sri Lanka), and it reveals that fiscal systems, while nearly always reducing inequality, can often worsen poverty.
Having just published her new book called Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth —a senior visiting research associate with Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute—is touring the world, appealing to people to break their global worship of growth; redesign money and finance; and to create economies that are regenerative and redistributive, and serve the interests of people worldwide, not just Audi drivers.
As Raworth readies her slides for the presentation, it feels like more ritualistic torture is on the way for devotees of economics. Scorned and roughed up for not warning beforehand about the 2008/9 financial crisis, and then lumped in with the backlash against "experts" in the recent UK Brexit vote, economists are being force-fed humility these days. Perhaps it's just a market correction towards the real calling for economists which John Maynard Keynes once envisaged as, "If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid."
Kate Raworth's flier for the May 11 event at the World Bank, promised that her game-changing analysis and inspiration for a new generation of economics thinkers will be "simple, playful, and eloquent."
Raworth starts off with her trademark pitch that "economics is the mother tongue of public policy" but when confronted with climate change, inequality, and the other arresting challenges of our present age, its hallowed ideas are centuries out of date and need to be junked. She uses the image of a doughnut to chart social and planetary boundaries consistent with achieving the SDGs and to depict where the "sweet spot" of progressive human prosperity lies. Threats to social justice and the planet's future lie outside the doughnut ring in pulsating red beams.