By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 3:22 AM
A decade ago, world leaders at the United Nations signed off on eight goals aimed at transforming the lives of the world's least fortunate - including cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015. Many Americans were skeptical; in a poll, only 8 percent thought that was possible.
This week, as nations gather to assess the goals, the United Nations countered the skeptics with an announcement: The world is actually on track to halve the percentage of people on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.
Even with the brutal global recession, the ranks of the world's desperately poor are likely to shrink to 15 percent of the population by 2015, less than half of the original 42 percent, said a recent U.N. report. The World Bank, in a separate analysis, said the objective appears "well within reach."
Despite the achievement, not everyone is celebrating.
Because of the economic crisis and jumps in food and fuel prices, "the momentum has been derailed" toward even deeper cuts in poverty, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, of the International Monetary Fund, said Monday at the opening session of a summit on the Millennium Development Goals, as the U.N. benchmarks are known.
Several of the original eight goals will probably not be met, including slashing the maternal and child mortality rate worldwide. Moreover,the progress on poverty comes with caveats: The absolute number of poor will shrink less than the percentage figure, because of population growth. Many note that the decline in poverty is due in large part to changes in a few big countries - in particular, China.
Still, development experts say that there are numerous underreported success stories in other countries, even in Africa. While the economic growth drove the reductions in poverty, the ambitious U.N. goals prompted a greater flow of international aid, and got some poor countries to adopt better policies, experts say.
"What is not often understood is how many countries there are that have been making real progress," said Mark Suzman, policy director at the Global Development Program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For example, he said, nine African nations have already succeeded in halving their rate of extreme poverty since 1990, the baseline for the U.N. targets.
The U.N. goals are aimed at the dirt-poor, a different level of misery than what's measured in the United States. The U.S. census sets the poverty level at $22,000 a year for a family of four. The U.N. goal, in contrast, targeted people living on less than $1 a day (later raised to $1.25 to reflect inflation). Many of them live in mud huts and shanty towns, with little access to flush toilets, medicine or high school.
How have so many people managed to get out of poverty? China, with 1.3 billion people, has had the biggest impact. About 60 percent of its massive population lived in extreme poverty in 1990; because of pro-market overhauls, that figure had plummeted to 16 percent by 2005, according to U.N. figures.
Excluding China, the percentage of people worldwide in extreme poverty is still projected to drop from about 35 percent to 18 percent in 2015, according to the World Bank.
"There are a lot of very large countries in terms of population that have had dramatic reductions in poverty," said Benjamin Leo, a researcher at the Center for Global Development. He cited Brazil, Pakistan, Vietnam and Bangladesh as examples.
While growth is the most critical ingredient in lowering poverty, other factors have mattered too - like remittances, improved governance, international aid and social spending.
For example, Brazil's growth averaged 4.2 percent a year from 2003 to 2008, healthy if not red-hot like China's. But about one-quarter of the Brazilian population is now getting small cash payments under an innovative government program known as Bolsa Familia. The country's rate of extreme poverty fell by one-third, to 5 percent, according to the World Bank.
The relatively bright picture on poverty reduction doesn't extend to sub-Saharan Africa, which fared the worst of all regions. Analysts say development there has been stalled by conflicts in big countries like Sudan and the Democratic Republic of theCongo, as well as environmental devastation.
Africa's poverty rate fell from 58 percent in 1996 to 50 percent in 2005, according to the World Bank. But because of population growth, the absolute number of poor grew from 296 million to 388 million. In other words, the poor were a smaller slice of the pie, but the pie got bigger.
Still, analysts say, there are notable examples of improvement in the continent. Consider Ethiopia, which became the symbol of African suffering during the 1984 famine. The level of extreme poverty there has dropped from 60 percent to 39 percent.
The country was, of course, coming off a low base. But Ethiopia has benefited from strong growth and government policies that are more business-friendly and give local communities more say in spending on schools, water and sanitation, according to Africa experts.
"They've improved delivery of basic services quite dramatically," said Shanta Devarajan, chief economist for Africa at the World Bank, a major provider of aid to the country.
The Millennium Development Goals were originally proposed by a broad movement of activists and others to reinvigorate foreign aid after it plunged in the aftermath of the Cold War.
"In this context, they were extremely successful. Aid has exploded over the last 10 years," with such programs as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said Leo. In addition, billions of dollars in poor countries' debts have been forgiven.
But many countries participating in the summit are angered the developed world hasn't been more generous, and hasn't kept some of its aid promises.
While many initially saw the goals as wildly optimistic, they were embraced by aid institutions and many poor countries.
"When I look at governments in low-income regions around the world, the [development goals] are very high on the minds of the cabinet, and very much embedded in government strategies and structures," said Jeffrey Sachs, a leading economist and adviser to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
"This has been a big change. . . .It's surprising, because most U.N. goals are not remembered, they don't last 10 years. They don't necessarily last a year."