The United Nations has singled out China — the world’s most populous country with more than 1.3 billion people — as one of the key success stories in the longstanding battle against poverty.
A new 60-page report reveals that, although extreme poverty rates have fallen in every developing region, China is way ahead of the pack.
In China, extreme poverty dropped from 60 percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 2005 and 12 percent in 2010.
In contrast, “poverty remains widespread in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, although progress in the latter region has been substantial,” according to the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Report 2013.
Following the launch of the report in Geneva, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the MDGs as “the most successful global anti-poverty push in history”.
The study takes stock of the successes and failures of the MDGs — aimed primarily at fighting poverty, hunger, illiteracy, disease and gender discrimination — which were approved at a summit of world leaders in September 2000, with a targeted deadline of 2015.
Despite impressive achievements at the global level, the study shows, 1.2 billion people are still living in extreme poverty.
While trumpeting some of the successes, including big gains in improved health and reduction in hunger, the report says progress toward achieving the MDGs has been uneven, not only among regions and countries but also between population groups within countries.
The study also says that more than two billion people gained access to improved sources of drinking water, and there were “remarkable gains” in the fight against malaria and tuberculosis.
Not all good
The bad news is that environmental sustainability is under severe threat, too many children are still denied their right to primary education, and there is less aid money overall, with the poorest countries most adversely affected.
Roberto Bissio, coordinator of the Uruguay-based Social Watch, an international non-governmental organization (NGO) that advocates for an end to poverty, said the reduction of income poverty happened almost exclusively in China.
“But it happened mainly before the year 2000, and thus cannot be honestly attributed as a success of the MDGs,” he added.
Shobha Das, program director with Minority Rights Group, said MDGs served to build a global discourse around development needs, and they have achieved much.
“However, the MDGs appear to have consistently failed minorities and indigenous peoples around the world,” she said.
For example, in India, poverty rates have remained higher for minorities and indigenous peoples as compared with the overall population, she noted.
In Uganda, rates of malnourishment are higher for the minority pastoralist population than for non-pastoralists.
In Peru, a lower proportion of children from the Afro-Peruvian community complete primary school than the overall national rate.
A key reason for these disparities, Das pointed out, is that governments have not been encouraged to resist cherry-picking in the scramble to meet MDG targets.
“This has meant they have reached the easiest-to-reach populations, who are usually the majority communities, and left behind the harder to reach populations, who are usually minorities,” Das added.
“Without clear targets to reduce inequality and spread the benefits of development equally, it is all too likely that the failures of the MDGs for minorities and indigenous peoples will be repeated post-2015,” she said.
The World Bank and different drafts for a post-2015 agenda claim that “for the first time ever” it is now possible to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030.
Paradoxically, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is now saying that poverty in developed countries and inequalities everywhere are an obstacle for recovery of the global economy.
The MDGs have been criticized for their lack of ambition, seeking to reduce rather than eliminate poverty.
“They have failed to establish and monitor clear commitments for developed countries,” said Bissio of Social Watch. “They have not addressed key environmental issues such as climate change, nor important structural issues such as governance, transparency and accountability.”
Some anti-poverty analysts believe the post-2015 framework offers us an opportunity to take a more holistic approach around a sustainable development agenda.