IT IS NO exaggeration to say that the years since the Cold War’s end have been something of a golden age for poverty eradication around the world. Thanks in part to reforms in China and India, as well as direct investment and aid from developed countries, economic growth has reduced the share of the world’s population living in extreme poverty — defined by the World Bank as an income of $1.90 per day or less — from 36 percent of the world’s population to 9.2 percent in 2017.
Now, tragically, the deep global recession due to the coronavirus pandemic has brought at least a temporary halt to the progress. The World Bank announced Wednesday that its latest estimates show a likely increase of 88 million to 115 million people to the ranks of the world’s poorest by the end of 2020. Accordingly, between 703 million and 729 million people will be trying to get by on $1.90 or less per day, in contrast to the institution’s pre-pandemic estimate of 615 million. This is a bleaker picture than the one presented in a recent Gates Foundation report, which showed that extreme poverty would grow by 37 million people. The main point, though, is that both sources show the numbers headed in the wrong direction — backward.
Once considered ambitious but plausible, the United Nations’ goal of reducing extreme poverty to a rate of 3 percent or less by 2030 could be slipping out of reach, absent “swift, significant and substantial policy action,” as the World Bank’s report noted. Especially urgent is the situation in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which account for the vast majority of the bank’s projected extreme-poverty increase. Certainly the first priority for that action must be measures to contain and, ultimately, prevent the virus, which is the essential condition for reactivating normal economic activity. Additionally, the United States and other developed nations must step up their debt-relief efforts targeted toward Africa and, to the extent possible, pressure China — a huge if largely nontransparent creditor in that continent — to contribute as well. Though food aid is necessarily a stopgap, the United Nations’ World Food Program, freshly and justly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, should get the support it needs. The United States has given the World Food Program $2.73 billion in 2020, or 43 percent of the total $6.35 billion donated.
Trump administration contributions to the World Food Program represent a bright exception to the “America First” rule the president has set in other contexts, such as his threats to withdraw from the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. Yet it will take much more, and more sustained, international cooperation to resume progress in global poverty eradication. And that, in turn, would require U.S. leadership to help overcome the strong incentives, political and economic, that the coronavirus creates for wealthier countries to turn inward. It would require, in other words, a very different kind of leadership than the Trump administration has provided for the past four years — or offers for the next four.