Knowledge Center / Extreme Poverty 101

Perhaps you already know:
  • There are nearly seven billion people in the world today.
  • Most of the world is “poor”. 
Perhaps you didn't know:
  • Though seven billion is a big number (as National Geographic has explained it), and it would take 200 years to count to seven billion out loud, or seven billion steps would take you around the globe 133 times, all seven billion of us standing shoulder to shoulder would fill the city of Los Angeles.
Perhaps you also didn't know:
  • Though most of the world is “poor” (by Western standards), earning less than $10,000/year annual income (or less than $27/day), most of the world’s poor aren’t dying by the millions each year. 
  • The Bottom Billion are.

The Bottom Billion are the 1.4 billion people on the planet living in extreme poverty on less than $500/year, or less than $1.25/day.

Life on $27 a day versus life on $1.25 a day. Both are considered poor, but contrast dramatically in their severity of poor.

It’s time to change the world talks about poverty, for poverty is not all the same.  There are the global “middle poor”, and there are Bottom Billion, living in – and dying from – extreme poverty.

The World Bank defines extreme poverty as life on less than $1.25/day.

Though extreme poverty is on the decline (more on this in a minute), extreme poverty and its related causes still kills nearly 10 million people every year, mostly women and children. This is the equivalent of 1000 human deaths every hour. 

At this rate, extreme poverty is the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet.

WWII was the deadliest war in human history. It lasted nine years and killed approximately 70
million people. 

Yet over the last nine years, extreme poverty has killed more than 90 million people, and it continues to kill 10 million more each year.

The Asian tsunami of 2004 and the Haitian earthquake of 2010 were natural disaster travesties that each produced deaths of several hundred thousand people.

Yet extreme poverty kills 240 thousand people every 10 days. 

If evaluated according to number of human deaths, extreme poverty is like a major natural disaster that repeats every 2 weeks.

Extreme poverty means a deprivation of most of life’s most basic necessities and opportunities: no clean water, no sanitation, no housing or very limited shelter, high infant mortality, high maternal mortality, chronic malnutrition, and poor or no health care.  Schooling is an unaffordable luxury.

While relative poverty —some people poorer than others— will always be with us, extreme poverty can be eliminated.

Eliminating extreme poverty means ending the severe deprivation of a finite number of people who are living in extremely impoverished conditions.

It not only can be done, it has been happening at an accelerating rate over the past several decades.

100 years ago, most people in the world lived in extreme poverty. If there was a bad harvest,   someone in the family died.

In 1990 only 34% of the world lived in extreme poverty. 66% of humanity had left extreme poverty. 

By 2005 only 22% of humanity lived in extreme poverty. 81% of humanity had left extreme poverty.

In 2011, 20% of the human race lives in extreme poverty.

The Millennium Development Goals (eight goals signed onto by 191 countries –more nations than any other compact in history) target a reduction in extreme poverty to nearly 10% –or 900 million, half the number in 1990– by 2015. In many countries, progress is being made towards meeting these goals.

Yet 24,000 people continue to die each day because of extreme poverty. For those whose lives are threatened by extreme poverty, additional sustainable solutions can’t come soon enough.

After all, ending extreme poverty is of paramount importance from a humanitarian standpoint.

It’s urgent from a global security and economic standpoint, too.

From a humanitarian perspective, it is every human being’s right to have the opportunity to work to create and access the resources and services that are considered fundamental to survival and enjoyed by the majority of people on the planet: clean water, food, shelter, basic medication, and sanitation.

From a global security perspective, the desperate circumstances facing those living in extreme poverty create opportunistic conditions for disease proliferation, terrorism, young pregnancy and overpopulation. These byproducts of extreme poverty hurt the global community and undermine the full potential of the extremely poor to contribute to their children, their communities, and the global economy. 

In his 2007 book, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, former director of research for the World Bank and current Director of the Center for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, Paul Collier wrote:

[Ending extreme poverty] matters, and not just to the billion people who are living and dying in fourteenth-century conditions. It matters to us. The twenty-first-century world of comfort, global travel, and economic inter-dependence will become increasingly vulnerable to these large islands of chaos. And it matters now. As the bottom billion diverges from an increasingly sophisticated world economy, integration will become harder, not easier.

In the following video, Swedish Professor and Statistician Hans Rosling explains why ending extreme poverty is essential for containing population growth and the health of the global environment.

The majority of those who suffer in extreme poverty were born into poverty, just like their parents and grandparents.  While multiple factors contribute to the poor staying extremely poor, including global resource distribution and environmental degradation, a lack of opportunity to work productively further aggravates their situation, not just economically but emotionally and spiritually, denying them the dignity to work and achieve incremental progress for themselves and their families.

The challenge is to help provide the extremely poor with opportunities to work productively and proactively to alleviate their suffering within extreme poverty and to leave extreme poverty over time.  Equipping the extremely poor to help themselves can restore the human dignity that extreme poverty strips away.  It also comprises part of the sustainable, scalable, replicable and timely solution required to save the 10 million lives being claimed by extreme poverty each year. 

As National Geographic pointed out in its 2011 year-long series on Global Population, it’s not space that we are short on, it’s balance.