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U.N. foresees dramatic cuts in poverty

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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.

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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.

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