The Millennium Development Goals have been a major improvement on the unfocused agenda for poverty that preceded them, but the world has changed radically since they were announced in 2000. And the assumptions on which they are based need to be rethought.
The World Bank has just raised the bean count of global poverty to 1.4 billion people, from just under a billion. It had previously overestimated the level of Chinese and Indian per capita incomes, so the count now shows that the number of poor Chinese and Indians far exceeds the number of poor Africans. But this is misleading because Chinese and Indian incomes are rising far faster and more surely than African incomes. The big difference between a poor Asian household and an equally poor African one is hope, not necessarily for the present generation of adults but for their children.
Hope makes a difference in people’s ability to tolerate poverty; parents are willing to sacrifice as long as their children have a future. Our top priority should be to provide credible hope where it has been lacking. The African countries in the bottom billion have missed out on the prolonged period of global growth that the rest of the world has experienced. The United Nations’ goal should not be to help the poor in fast-growing and middle-income countries; it should do its utmost to help the bottom billion to catch up. Anti-poverty efforts should be focused on the 60 or so countries — most of them in Africa — that are both poor and persistently slow-growing.