Can we really end poverty? 5 experts weigh in

July 2, 2018
Written by Kieran McConville
Photo by Kieran McConville

It’s a question that pops up on a perennial basis, and of course there’s no right or wrong answer. But there are plenty of opinions, and we’ve assembled some of the most relevant.

At the 2005 “Make Poverty History” rally in London, Nelson Mandela said:

“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.”

As quotes go, it’s pretty inspirational. But is it true? 

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals outlines a vision for a better world — for all countries — by 2030. Goal 1 is to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.” This begs the question: Can we really end poverty? Is there such a thing as zero poverty? What are the actual chances of eliminating global poverty? 

Or, to paraphrase a very famous book, will the poor “always be with us?” We’ve asked 5 experts to weigh in on the basic question: Is it possible to end poverty? 

A street in Central African Republic, the poorest country in the world.

Caveat: Defining and measuring poverty

The general consensus (in the field of poverty reduction, global development, and SDGs) is that extreme poverty is the real issue at stake here. According to the World Bank, the international poverty line is an income of $1.90 per day, globally adjusted. This means that countries making at or below this average are living in extreme poverty. 

By the World Bank’s most recent estimates in 2015, 10% of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty. That’s down from nearly 36% in 1990. 

So, for the purposes of this article, let’s modify our question to: “Is it really possible to end extreme poverty?”

Our panel of experts

We gathered the thoughts of 5 notable people from different sectors who have informed opinions on the subject. This includes an economist, a psychologist, a government representative, the chief of an international aid agency and… a rock star. 

Woman stands by a rough desert shelter

A woman, displaced by drought in Somaliland, stands by her shelter.

Here’s what they said:

The Economist: Victoria Kwakwa

Vice President of the World Bank Group for East Asia and Pacific. Victoria oversees a portfolio of more than $32 billion in loans, grants, credits, and trust funds across 23 countries.

“I believe it is possible to end extreme poverty by 2030 and boost shared prosperity among the poorest 40 percent in every country.”

At the World Bank Group, we see three clear ways to achieve these goals. Together with our partners, we can promote sustainable and inclusive economic growth, especially through boosting private investment in infrastructure.

We can invest in human capital starting from a child’s early years, because people with better skills, education, health, and training will make the biggest difference to countries’ ability to grow and compete.

And together we can foster resilience to global shocks, including forced displacement, climate change and pandemics, which threaten to roll back our hard-fought development gains.


The Psychologist: Steven Pinker

Experimental psychologist and author. Currently a Professor at Harvard, he is the author of 10 books, most recently Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

“Global extreme poverty has declined to 9.6 percent of the world population; 200 years ago, it was at 90 percent.”

 

In just the last 30 years, extreme poverty has declined by 75 percent — a stupendous achievement that is almost entirely unappreciated.

The UN gave itself a cushion in its 2015 Sustainable Development Goals and set a target of “ending extreme poverty for all people everywhere” by 2030. Ending poverty for all people everywhere! May I live to see the day. Of course that day is a ways off.

Though the numbers are dwindling in countries like India and Indonesia, they are increasing in the poorest of the poor countries, like Congo, Haiti, and Sudan, and the last pockets of poverty will be the hardest to eliminate.


The Government Representative: Mark Green

Administrator of USAID, the United States Agency for International Development. USAID is primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance with an annual budget of over $27 billion.

“I believe the purpose of foreign assistance should be ending its need to exist.”

 

 

For years, whether we realized it or not, USAID and others saw donors and governments as the proper drivers of progress. Private enterprise was something to keep at a distance or if you could, bend it to your will. Today we have moved way beyond.

The most important development in development is the burgeoning new relationship between the development community and… the private sector, the private enterprise.  I think leaders in both sectors are finally figuring out how to… take on challenges and problems that, not so long ago, seemed insurmountable.

I believe the purpose of foreign assistance should be ending its need to exist.


The NGO Chief: Dominic MacSorley

CEO of Concern Worldwide. A humanitarian with more than 30 years of experience, Dominic heads an organization with development and emergency relief operations in 24 of the world’s poorest countries.

“The resources are there to end extreme poverty. But do we have the political will and the courage to make the tough decisions?”

Political will isn’t just some abstract commitment, it will demand national sacrifice for a greater global good and fundamental shifts in policy to change the course of our future.

The fundamental principle of the Sustainable Development Goals is “Leaving no one Behind,” and the spirit of the Goals compels nations to try to reach the furthest behind first.

That means the stateless, the disposed, the marginalized, and the 140 million people who are now in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.


The Rock Star: Bono

Rock Star (and activist). As well as being frontman for U2, Bono is also a well-known activist in the fight against AIDS and global poverty. He is a co-founder of ONE, a global campaign and advocacy organization with more than 9 million members.

“You can’t do this without commerce. Commerce is the greatest player in taking people out of extreme poverty.”

 

Just look at India, just look at China. Aid, development assistance is the bridge from here to there. We had a very snobby attitude about business and big business — we sort of demonized it.

Actually you go to the developing world and jobs are the most dignified thing you could offer someone. When people have work, they can sort out their own problems. Capitalism can be a monster… if we let it be, but capitalism must and will take our instruction. And when it does, it can be quite an engine and a force for good.

We’re at a very interesting moment. The project of ridding the world of extreme poverty has had some great successes over the last couple of decades, but in fact there’s a complacency now, and we have to be very careful. There’s a let’s-put-ourselves-first movement with the rich countries.

We will never achieve that great global goal of ending extreme poverty if we don’t admit it — poverty is sexist — and demand policies which deliver equality.


Yasseka building ditches in CAR

A cash-for-work road-building project in Central African Republic.

So… Can we really end poverty?

There’s a strong groundswell of optimism among our panel about the possibility of eliminating extreme poverty. How we go about doing this is another discussion. However, some of the common themes that come up around poverty alleviation include equality, commerce, political commitment, resilience-building, accountability, and transparency. 

As the historical trend around global poverty rates indicates, we’ve also made significant progress in the last three decades. In order to meet our 2030 goal, we’ll need more of the same while maintaining focus. 

In answer to the question, let’s believe that the answer can be yes.

All quotes have been either obtained directly or are taken from recent speeches, videos, or writings.

Find out more about what's being done to end extreme poverty