Late in his State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama made a bold claim: "In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades." The question naturally becomes: Can we really end extreme poverty in the next two decades? Can the world collectively achieve a bare minimum standard of living embraced by every country around the globe?
The answer, by and large, is yes.
While some may not have seen the president's remarks coming, they are built upon ongoing discussions with the United Nations and all of its member states regarding how best to follow up on the existing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which run through 2015. The MDGs are broadly viewed as a success, and they represent a very rare creature in international diplomatic circles -- one in which sweeping rhetoric was actually accompanied by practical, ambitious, and very measurable goals and targets to tackle key elements of extreme poverty: including reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, and reducing hunger. Not only did the world commit to some very big-ticket items in the MDGs, it committed itself to measure its progress toward these goals using hard and publicly accessible data.
The Millennium Declaration, signed in September 2000, included eight goals and some 21 targets and was agreed upon by all U.N. member states. The first goal was to halve the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day, the widely accepted mark at the time for extreme poverty. (The extreme poverty level was subsequently adjusted by the World Bank to $1.25 in 2005.)
The world has done well in meeting this broad goal. The number of people living on less than $1.25 per day was roughly halved between 2000 and 2010, and 2012 marked the first year that both the absolute number of people living in extreme poverty and rates of poverty fell in every developing region, including in sub-Saharan Africa. Other goals, particularly reducing maternal mortality, have been harder to meet, but have also shown significant progress.
But it is also important to note that progress toward these broad goals was very uneven, not only across regions and countries, but within individual countries themselves. Enormous economic gains in China and India accounted for much of the reduction in the overall extreme poverty numbers, while Africa has lagged. Even in countries that made significant gains, traditionally disenfranchised populations were often left behind simply by dint of gender, ethnicity, or geographic location.
The profile of where the poorest of the poor reside has also shifted considerably. Whereas in 1990, 80 percent of the world's poor lived in stable, low-income countries, today roughly half of the world's poor live in stable middle-income countries, while 41 percent of the poorest of the poor live in fragile and conflict-affected states. This changing locus of poverty necessitates a two-pronged effort to assist the marginalized poor in middle income states while helping fragile and conflict affected states put in place the basic systems that will help break repeated cycles of crisis and violence.