Setting the bar too low: is there really progress on UN development goals?

Written by David Satterthwaite, IIED, on the IIED blog.

“The United Nations claims great progress towards most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In a report published in September, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said the MDGs “have been the most successful global anti-poverty push in history.” He added: “Significant and substantial progress has been made in meeting many of the targets—including halving the number of people living in extreme poverty and the proportion of people without sustainable access to improved sources of drinking water. The proportion of urban slum dwellers declined significantly.”

But much of the supporting evidence for these claims is based on faulty statistics or heroic guesses where there is no data. I focus on urban areas since this is where I work. It may be that many of the indicators used to monitor MDG performance in rural areas are as inappropriate or inaccurate.

Extreme poverty

The 2013 MDG report says: “The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been halved at the global level.” But this is only because the UN uses an unrealistic poverty line of US$1.25 a day. In most cities, this is not enough to pay for food and non-food needs. If accurate poverty lines were set in each nation based what these things really cost, the proportion of people in extreme poverty would have declined far less than the UN claims.

But set a poverty line low enough and much of the poverty will magically disappear. In applying the US$1.25 poverty line, there appears to be virtually no urban poverty in China, the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia and very little in Latin AmericaWhy then are hundreds of millions of urban dwellers in these regions — who apparently are not poor — still ‘living in poverty’ in poor quality, overcrowded homes that lack safe and sufficient water, sanitation, drainage, health care and emergency services? Why are so many of their children malnourished?  Is their poverty not ‘extreme’ enough for the UN to include them in their statistics?”

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