A World Without The Poor, Not Without Poverty

Half a million die every year from malnutrition. Yet the fate of the world is decided without giving the poor a voice. The result is enduring poverty. The affluent need to face up to the consequences of our actions.

Famine is raging in Africa. The daily death toll is above 6 per 10,000 — thirty times higher than the catastrophe Norway suffered, for only one day. World leaders are calling on other leaders to do more. Sadly familiar. The usual never-agains will follow as the famine recedes. Affluent populations survive draughts, food flows to meet their demand. Poor people die from malnutrition even without a draught — 500,000 each year. Draught concentrates the dying. But the real problem is poverty, and our miserable efforts to hide it. At the 1996 World Food Summit, our governments promised to halve the number of undernourished by 2015: from 788 to 394 million. Since then, this number has steadily risen, exceeding 1 billion in 2009 for the first time in human history. What is the official response?

First, move the goal posts. The 2000 Millennium Declaration promised to half by 2015 the proportion of the world’s people who go hungry, thereby raising the allowable 2015 number from 394 to 497 million. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) then introduced yet another version tracking the hungry as a proportion of the faster-growing population of the developing countries and also backdating the baseline to 1990, when this proportion was 20%. Halving it by 2015 would leave 605 million undernourished. Our cosmetic revisions have added 211 million to the maximum hunger count we will deem acceptable in 2015.

Second, measure something else. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2011 provides figures on hunger up to 2005–07. It withholds the last few years of FAO data, which show the impact of food prices nearly doubling in the last five years; and it omits the 2009 peak, likely to be surpassed in 2011. The Report focuses instead on “extreme poverty,” which has steadily declined at least for households that have some employment. The Report bravely notes “the disconnect between poverty reduction and the persistence of hunger” but then attributes it to “the mechanisms governing access to food in the developing world.” So the poor have the money but the nearby stores are not good at restocking?

No. The disconnect is due to the World Bank definition: a person lives in extreme poverty just in case the local cost of her household’s entire consumption, per person per day, has less purchasing power than $1.25 had in the US in 2005. Here the purchasing power of currencies is measured by taking account of the prices of all commodities, each weighted in proportion to its share in international household consumption expenditure. But nearly all of these commodities are irrelevant to poverty avoidance. By entering all their prices into its calculation, the Bank marginalizes the few prices that really matter to the poor: the cost of basic foodstuffs first and foremost. The result is an absurdly rosy view of declining poverty which drowns out the horrible news about hunger. Orwellian headline: Poverty way down: ever more people go hungry.

Our global elite has shaped a new global institutional architecture — with tender loving care, they say, for the poor. Really? Between 1988 and 2005 the richest 5% of world population raised their share of global household income from 42.9% to 46.4%. The poorest quarter — five times as many — lost the most: nearly one third of its share (1.16% to 0.78%). From 185:1, the average-income ratio between the two groups climbed to 300:1. Hunger will not end until we affluent at least face up to what we’re doing.

Read more in this debate: James Shikwati.

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