Olivier Consolo talks about why the “bottom billion” figure doesn’t show the entire story.
Many more people are living in poverty around the world than the typical figures would have us believe. This could have deep consequences for global efforts to tackle poverty.
The most famous figure is that of the “bottom billion” living on less than $1.25 a day. It’s become a staple part of the taglines of NGO campaigns, conference invitations of global institutions and reports in the media. But take a closer look, and you’ll find that the $1.25 a day concept would at best cover those that the United Nations considers living in ‘extreme poverty’. Ignored in this narrow calculation are billions more.
The reality is that 2.7 billion people are currently living on less than $2 a day, according to a study commissioned by the UN Secretary General. No-one who lives on less than $2 a day – the UN poverty line calculated on incomes – is anything but poor, and makes the bottom billion calculation a misleading figure for public and political perceptions about the scale of global poverty.If you add the other hundreds of millions officially living in poverty in rich countries, such as members of the OECD, the actual poverty figure stands at over three billion.
And that’s just looking at economic credentials. Poverty in the developing world, however, goes far beyond income poverty. It means having to walk more than one mile everyday simply to collect water and firewood; it means suffering diseases that were eradicated from rich countries decades ago. More than 2.6 billion people -over 40 per cent of the world’s population- do not have basic sanitation, according to the World Health Organisation. And almost half the world’s population—about 3 billion people— don’t have access to gas or electricity for cooking. Even more people don’t enjoy basic rights and freedoms such as those lacking good health services, education opportunities or those that are victims of dictatorships and conflicts.
In total, if we combine the official figures from the UN, World Bank and OECD more than 60% of the world population are struggling for their basic rights and for a decent life.
It’s important that we push governments and decision makers to see this reality, as it’s already having consequences for development and humanitarian policies.
Policies focusing on the so called ‘bottom billion’ reinforce the wrong perception that a social treatment of poverty is enough. It gives the impression that the global political and economic system is delivering its promises, whilst unfortunately leaving 15% of the population behind. The poor one billion therefore need to be ‘helped’ or ‘saved’: a charity approach to fight poverty.
On the contrary, if decision makers would focus on a global reality that excludes almost two thirds of the world population – some 4 billion – it could lead to a deep overhaul of the way poverty is tackled.
With a lot of political processes now starting on the future of the post-2015 development agenda, decision makers need to look at the real numbers of people living in poverty, and not just choose the figure that hides an awkward truth.