How many people were left behind by unequal growth during the MDG period?

This post, written by Chris Hoy, Research Officer at ODI, and Emma Samman, is the ninth in our blog series which aims to explore how the Sustainable Development Goals can be drafted to include all social and economic groups. 


Worsening inequality is a key challenge of our time. Evidence from Oxfam illustrates that next year, if current trends continue, the richest 1% of humanity will own half of global wealth. Our own computations show that over the MDG period (1990-2015), nearly 4 people in 5 lived in countries where the bottom 40% of the income distribution grew more slowly than the average.

We should be concerned about inequality for many reasons – just one of them is that it is intimately linked to levels of absolute deprivation. Growth can reduce poverty even if offset by rising inequality but it makes the challenge much harder. In light of the global call of the SDGs to ‘leave no one behind’ and the proposed target that the incomes of the bottom 40% within countries should exceed national averages, it becomes pertinent to think about what the poverty reducing effect might be.

One potential approach, featured in a recent World Bank working paper, is to undertake poverty projections over the next 15 years under different inequality scenarios. Another, which we adopt, is to estimate how many people would be poor today according to the $1.25 a day benchmark if countries had experienced more equal growth over the last 30 years.

Using some simplifying assumptions, we explore two scenarios. Under the first, ‘equal growth’, we assume the bottom 40% of the population grew at the same rate as the average of their country. Under another, ‘pro-poor growth’, we assume the bottom 40% grew faster than the average (we considered gaps of 1 to 3 percentage points, in line with the actual experiences of some countries in the past 3 decades). We wanted to keep overall growth constant so that we isolated the impact of inequality – this meant that any increase to the growth of incomes of the bottom 40% had to be subtracted from the incomes of richer people within that country. We considered two possibilities – if this income was subtracted equally from every person in the top 60% of the society, and if it came solely from those fortunate enough to be in the top 10%.

The headline finding: many fewer people could have been left behind in extreme poverty had growth been more equal over the last 30 years.

We first illustrate this claim, then highlight an important caveat.

1. Equal Growth Scenario

If all people within each country had experienced equal income growth, around 200 million more people – about 1 in 5 of those that are currently very poor – would have escaped extreme poverty. Interestingly, the difference is entirely due to unequal growth in many of today’s middle income countries (Chart 1). On average, today’s low income countries experienced relatively equal growth between the bottom 40% and the average.

total poverty by income

Under this scenario, China could have effectively eliminated extreme poverty along with countries including Mexico and Peru. In other words, while growth played a key role in reducing extreme poverty in fast growing middle income countries like China, if growth had been equal, the impact on poverty could have been much bigger.

2. Pro-poor growth

Fewer than half as many people would live in extreme poverty today if the incomes of the bottom 40% of people in each country had grown two percentage points faster than the average. For example, extreme poverty could have been eliminated in Indonesia and Philippines and could have fallen to around 5% in India and Vietnam. This level of pro-poor growth is possible as it actually did occur in around a quarter of countries.

Now the key caveat… Initial poverty levels and the type of redistribution matter.

In too many countries still, poverty rates over 40% are part of recent history or current reality. In these places, redistributing income bluntly from the top 60% of the population can actually increase poverty levels if it pushes people that were above the poverty line below it. One alternative is that these high-poverty countries redistribute income growth from the top 10% of their population alone – this is likely to reduce poverty in most but not all the countries we examined.

Whether growth is redistributed from the top 60% or the top 10% also has a potentially big impact on the global poverty (Chart 2). If growth is redistributed away from top 60%, then extreme poverty starts to increase when growth is more than 2 percentage points higher for the bottom 40% relative to the average. In contrast, if growth is redistributed away from top 10%, the global poverty rate continues to decline.

extreme poverty under different

So what lessons can be learned for the SDGs?

This analysis illustrates that significantly more poverty reduction could have occurred if the income growth of the bottom 40% of the population was higher than the average in many MICs. In contrast, in most LICs this would have done very little to eliminate extreme poverty. To move towards the SDG poverty goal – to ‘end poverty in all its forms everywhere’ – growth needs to be more equally distributed in middle income countries.

In LICs however, growth needs to be higher while continuing to be relatively equal across the distribution. But we also show that governments need to be very careful in how they redistribute in order to avoid perverse outcomes. ‘Leaving no one behind’ will require a careful mix of global ambition and close attention to country realities.

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