Imagine the populations of the US, Brazil and Russia all lined up one after the other. That is approximately the number of poor children there are in the world – which stands at 689m across 103 countries, according to a new report published by my colleagues at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI).
Even more frustrating is that children, who represent 34% of the population in these countries, constitute half of the world’s poor and have a higher rate of poverty than adults. This is a call for action that poses a huge challenge to the accomplishment of goal number one of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs): ending poverty in all its forms and dimensions.
As the UN High Level Political Forum meets on July 10 to discuss poverty eradication and track progress on the SDGs, the international community at large must take swift action to address this issue.
The OPHI report used the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, first introduced in 2010, which comprises a series of measures that assess deprivations in health, education and living standards to find out how many children are what are called “multidimensionally poor”. When looking at populations across 103 low and middle-income countries for which data is available, the research team found that children represent 48% of the multidimensional poor – and account for two out of every five children in these countries.
Some 87% of the 689m are growing up in South Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa – around 300m in each region. In Ethiopia, Niger and South Sudan more than 90% of all children are multidimensionally poor. The report also found that younger children, from birth to the age of nine, are the poorest according to the index – meaning more action is needed to improve nutrition and education in early stages of life.
More than just income
There are diverse and complementary ways of measuring poverty and, often, one measure alone does not provide the full picture. The numbers living in poverty can be different too.
In 2016, a joint report of the World Bank and UNICEF found that, globally, 385m children were living on less than $1.90 a day (£1.46) per person. But using a different series of measures the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index found that the number of poor children rises to 689m.
Why this difference? The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) draws attention to indicators that go beyond just income. It assesses a range of deprivations across health, education and living standards using ten indicators which include nutrition, school attendance and sanitation. A person is identified as multidimensionally poor if she or he is deprived in one-third or more of the ten indicators. This captures how people experience different deprivations simultaneously, and illuminates key areas that need as much attention as income.
These contrasts between different measures are not only about numbers but also about location. For example, the World Bank and UNICEF’s report using the $1.90/day measure shows that the percentage of income poor is 20% in South Asia and 49% in Sub-Saharan Africa. In comparison, OPHI’s study shows that 44% of poor children are in South Asia and 43% in Sub-Saharan Africa, indicating that South Asia requires as much attention as Sub-Saharan Africa in the efforts to fight poverty.
The need for better data
Progress in global poverty reduction has been steady over the past 20 years. According to the 2015 Millennium Development Goals report, in 1990, half of the people in developing countries were living under the poverty line. This proportion went down to 14% in 2015. Extreme poverty at the global level also declined more than half, falling from one billion in 1990 to 836m in 2015.
Despite this progress, efforts to tackle global poverty and to monitor it have sparked debate and concerns when it comes to measuring it, as the poorest people remain invisible. For example, a World Bank study showed that in the period between 2002 and 2011, 61% of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa did not have adequate data to monitor poverty trends. Without this critical information targeting and policy responses could be misguided.
The international community has acknowledged the importance of strengthening the availability and production of data. “We are almost blind when the metrics on which action is based are ill-designed or when they are not well understood”, wrote the renowned economists Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi in 2010.
A call for action
The results of the OPHI report are a call for action to the international community who must act swiftly and with determination. As new data shines light on aspects that were invisible before, new policy responses must be crafted, particularly for the younger generation growing up in poverty.
In 2015 the then-UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon said that the Millenium Development Goals had been “the most successful anti-poverty movement in history” but that more needed to be done.
Children are our future but the future of this rising generation is in peril. Global leaders must do everything in their power, not only to lift children out of poverty, but to protect, nurture and help them realise their full potential. The most successful anti-poverty movement will be the one that leaves no one behind by ending poverty in all its forms and dimensions, everywhere.