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13 Things You Didn't Know About Extreme Poverty

The world could be free of extreme poverty in just 15 years. An expert reveals the little-known reasons to be optimistic.

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1. The world is on course to end "extreme poverty" in just 15 years.

"Extreme poverty" is defined as living on less than $1.25 a day. At the moment, about 1 billion people worldwide live like this. The United Nations has set a goal of eradicating it from the world by 2030.

Prof Hans Rosling, the Swedish statistician behind the BBC documentary Don't Panic: How to End Poverty in 15 Years, tells BuzzFeed that it's possible. "If the world ticks on as it does now, then it'll be easier to get the last billion out of extreme poverty than it is to stop climate change, or to avoid war," he says. "It shouldn't be so difficult. If we build the roads out to the remote places, if we put a school there, if we put a health post, and see that people are able to trade, they earn some money, they get contraceptives, and they have two kids – we've done it for most of the world's population."

The percentage of the world living in extreme poverty has fallen from 85% in 1800 to just 12% now – and, he says, if the trend continues, ending it in 2030 is entirely achievable.


2. It'll be easier to end extreme poverty quickly than to do it slowly.

One big driver of extreme poverty is what Rosling calls "one plus one equals four". In the very poorest parts of the world, the average woman has five children. On average, one of those die and four survive. So two people become four in each generation – the population of the very poor doubles each generation. Outside extreme poverty, in the whole rest of the world, the average woman has just two children.

"Inside extreme poverty, it's just like Malthus, because you need children," says Rosling. "You need children to fetch water, to fetch firewood. Where children don't go to primary school today, as Malala says, it's because the families are so poor they have to work to feed the family." But once you get people out of extreme poverty, they will have smaller families, so long as they have access to contraception.

That means, he says, that if we only get some people out of extreme poverty, those inside will still have large families, and poverty will reproduce itself. But if we do it in less than a generation, that won't happen.

3. The world has reached peak children.

There are about 1.9 billion children in the world, about 27% of the total population. But that number has stopped going up: The population is still growing, but only because people are living longer. "The number of children in the world remains constant," says Rosling, "but they're shrinking in Asia and growing in Africa, at almost the same rate. Out of four kids who will have their 15th birthday in China, three are replaced by new ones in China, and one is replaced by a very poor newborn in northern Nigeria. That's why the number of children in the world remains constant.

"The children in the world are moving towards poverty. Not moving physically, but numerically." That's another reason why it'll be easier to end poverty quickly than slowly, he says: If we leave it longer than 15 years to take action, there's more time for the population in extreme poverty to increase exponentially.

4. Africa is not a basket case: Much of it is booming.

"[My argument] isn't that Africa should develop, or that it can develop," says Rosling. "It's that Africa is developing. Africa is going like that." He gestures like a plane taking off. Ethiopia, he says, is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, averaging 10% growth a year for a decade despite its less-than-liberal government. "Go and talk to a chairman, a CEO of a textiles company, or something and they are massively moving from Asia into Ethiopia."

It's not just Ethiopia. "I flew here with one of the R&D people from Ericsson, who developed the new software for the new mobiles," he goes on, "and he said that where they manage to hire the cleverest software developers today is in Nairobi.

"The big message in Davos, the World Economic Forum, is that now the African economy has gone from a raw-material economy to a consumer economy. You make money in Africa by satisfying the needs of the Africans, not by exporting the raw materials of Africa. It's by making cement that you become rich in Africa, for building houses, for sewage systems, and so on." GDP has been growing, child mortality dropping, life expectancy rising, he says. It's still behind the rest of the world, but it is beginning to catch up.


5. Those in extreme poverty are not a stable group. People climb out, and fall back in.

"We get the idea that it's poor people, they are sitting there, they are so poor, they have no food, they can't work," says Rosling. "If you're compassionate, you say they're too hungry to work; if you're not compassionate, they're too lazy to work.

"That's not how it is. They work as hard as they can, they get out of it, they get an accident, someone steals from them, and they're back. It's an enormous circulation."

6. Often, it's a health crisis that causes people to fall back in.

"It just takes a disease, tuberculosis, or a car accident, a need for a caesarian section, a broken leg for your child, and they have to pay the bill and they're back," says Rosling. "Disease is the most common cause of it." He cites the work of Anirudh Krishna, author of One Illness Away.

When people from very poor countries go to work for higher salaries in richer countries, "the money they send back is largely for health crises", he says. Simple welfare state arrangements such as government payments for emergency healthcare costs for the poorest are one of the most powerful ways of keeping people out of poverty once they've climbed out.

7. The market can help keep people out of extreme poverty, but it can’t get them out of it in the first place.

Capitalism has done incredible things, but it can't help the very poorest in the remotest areas, because they have nothing to offer it. "Market economy can stop people falling back in, but it can't lift them out," says Rosling. "Market economy won't build the road to the corner of the district where there is no economic activity. It won't even put the cellphone tower there, because they can't afford one." The state – or foreign aid – needs to build the infrastructure: the roads, the schools, the health centres.


8. Educating women is one of the fastest ways to reduce poverty.

"If you look at some countries in Central America, you have three types of couples," says Rosling. "Couples where both father and mother can read, they have the lowest child mortality. Then you have two other types of couple, ones where no one can read, and ones where only the father can read. And the highest child mortality is where only the father can read. If the mother is illiterate, it's better if the father is too." This hasn't been confirmed worldwide, but it shows how important educating women is.

"Female education is a powerful driver for two reasons," he says. "One is true knowledge. The manager of the household and of the upbringing of children knows more things," such as how much you need to pay for food, schoolbooks, and clothes. The other is power: "The one who gets pregnant, the one who gives birth, the one who takes care of the children is a much better one to give priority to the children than is the father." And an educated woman who is not reliant on her husband for money and food has much more power to look after her children in the way she thinks best.

9. Foreign aid is going to the wrong places.

Too many people think of the world as divided into the rich West and everywhere else, says Rosling. But only 12.5% of the globe is in extreme poverty; the majority of people live somewhere in the middle.

Foreign aid is important for ending poverty. But, says Rosling, drawing on an analysis by the Overseas Development Institute, it's misdirected. Richer countries in the middle – countries like Mexico and China – are getting about $300 in aid per person in extreme poverty. Poorer countries in the middle, such as Cambodia, get about the same. But the very poorest countries in the world, places like Malawi, get just $100 per person in extreme poverty. "The reason is that there's been such a focus on avoiding corruption," he says. "If you want to avoid corruption you withdraw your money from Malawi or Zambia and you keep funding Sri Lanka.

"The poorest countries have the biggest problem with corruption. They're too poor to be helped." Rosling thinks we should withdraw aid from the richer countries in the middle – he points out that Mexico and China are themselves generous donors of aid, and China and India both have space programmes – and put it into the poorer countries, accepting a certain amount of loss to corruption.

10. It will be easier and quicker ending extreme poverty in today's poor countries than it was in the West.

We have better technologies now, and better policies, says Rosling. "We can deliver healthy children, and educated parents who can exercise the option of fewer children, because they have contraceptives, at a much lower economic level than we did before." Condoms used to be expensive things. More obviously, mobile phones have cut distances and put remote places in touch with wider society. Most children are vaccinated. And cheap transport saves lives: "One of the greatest reasons for reduced maternal mortality in Africa is motorbikes, getting people to hospital quickly."

What's more, modern policies, health and economic, are better. "For how long were condoms forbidden to import and sell in Sweden?" asks Rosling. "Up to 1936! When could condoms be sold in public? 1958! I remember it! Today countries like Indonesia and Nigeria have so much cleverer policies than Britain and Sweden had at the same economic level. So they can progress much faster. African countries keep control of inflation. For 15 years there's not been stupid inflation in African countries."


11. We could end poverty before climate change has a chance to make it more difficult.

"The time frames are completely different," says Rosling. "The time frame of ending extreme poverty is 15 years. The time frame for climate change is 50 to 100."

Climate change is still a great risk, he says. But by the time it's causing problems, we should have ended extreme poverty altogether.

12. The poor world getting richer won’t mean an end to migration.

We often hear that the people trying to cross the Mediterranean, or camping at Calais, are fleeing desperate poverty, and if we get more people out of extreme poverty, they won't come. "Nothing could be more wrong," says Rosling. "It's exactly the other way around. People in extreme poverty will never come to Europe. They can't even afford to go to their own capital, let alone to Libya and pay for this tremendous costly boat trip, because they can't fly. As Africa grows richer and richer, as we take people out of extreme poverty, the number of migrants will increase.

"It's the ones who are better off. The ones whose mother came out of extreme poverty, who has got two or three kids, who put them in school, and who is either academically trained and speaks good English and will camp in Calais, or is trained and can repair cars so he goes to repair cars in Marseille. Where do we have most migrants in the world? From Mexico to the US."

13. The rich world has no idea what's going on in the poor world.

Eight out of 10 adults worldwide are literate; the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty has dropped; the number of children in the world is not growing. But when Rosling asked people in the West to guess those figures as part of his Gapminder project, he found that we get them all extraordinarily wrong. We systematically think that people in the developing world are poorer, shorter-lived, less educated, and with less access to basic amenities than they actually are.

Prof Rosling's Don't Panic: How to End Poverty in 15 Years is on BBC2 on Wednesday 23 September.


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