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U.N. foresees dramatic cuts in poverty

A girl pushes a water jug in Dertu, Kenya, after filling it at a borehole. This is one of 14 U.N. Millennium Villages envisioned as launchpads for a mass leap out of poverty.
A girl pushes a water jug in Dertu, Kenya, after filling it at a borehole. This is one of 14 U.N. Millennium Villages envisioned as launchpads for a mass leap out of poverty. (Khalil Senosi)

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."


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