The future of global poverty: What if there were multiple horizons for aid post-2015?

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A Brookings paper out this week (here) does something a set of papers have sought to do recently – that is make projections about the future of global poverty.

These kind of papers have significant policy implications because it is only by understanding both the future scale and anticipated locations of poverty that properly informed debates can be had on the scale and objectives of future international aid. And of course the whole post-2015 debate is mushrooming (see the latest here).

In a new paper, we, meaning Peter Edward and myself, add to the debate by looking across a wide range of scenarios and methods to see the level of uncertainty and bias built in to these kind of forecasts.

We have three conclusions across a range of scenarios and approaches that somewhat tally with the Brookings paper but with some quite important differences.

First, ending extreme poverty is plausible but the level of uncertainty is enormous.

Across a wide range of scenarios, using different assumptions and methods, we find that it is plausible that $1.25 and $2 global poverty will reduce substantially by 2030. However this is by no means certain.

Different methods of calculating and forecasting poverty numbers give very different results as do an approach which takes account of changes in inequality.

Uncertainties over future, and even current, poverty levels are especially high for India and China (where half of the world’s poor people currently live).

While it is likely that poverty in those countries will reduce dramatically by 2030 it is difficult to have much certainty over just how large those reductions will be. Because of these uncertainties it is possible to conceive, under different growth scenarios and different assumptions about future inequality, that $2 poverty could be eradicated in India and China by 2030 or that it could be at or above current levels.

Second, don’t get too hung up on fragile states (at least not as the OECD defines them) because global poverty may well not be concentrated in such countries in the future – at least it is not a given.

Depending on what happens to inequality much of world poverty could still be in Middle Income Countries (MICs) but better still maybe it’s time to dump such aggregate classifications by income and fragility (both conflate so many different types of countries it raises questions about their usefulness).

If we take the groupings for a moment, currently most poverty is in middle income countries (MICs) and even when China and India are removed from the picture poverty is still more or less evenly divided between MICs and low income countries (LICs). Even with those two countries excluded the forecast poverty reductions in the remaining MICs are not so large, nor so certain, as to justify in themselves the view that poverty in the future will be a matter for LICs primarily.

In fact, once recategorisations are taken into account it seems that poverty outside India and China will remain roughly evenly distributed across MICs and LICs in 2030.

And looking to other possible classifications it may be that the World Bank’s shorter list of ‘fragile situations’ that emphasizes conflict/post-conflict countries is more useful but even then the UN’s widely used Least Developed Countries (LDCs) categorization might be just as useful or more so.

Further, we find certain kinds of method produce a bias towards moving global poverty into fragile states simply by the approach taken.

Third, it is startling just how much difference changes in national inequality could make – suggesting support for greater attention to this is the key implication of all these future projections.

Forecasts of global poverty are very sensitive to assumptions about inequality. In one scenario, we found that the difference between poverty estimated on current inequality trends versus a hypothetical return to ‘best ever’ inequality for every country could be an extra billion $2 poor people in 2030.

Taking a different scenario  – one of optimistic economic growth, $2 poverty could fall from around 2 billion today to 600m by 2030 – if every country returned to ‘best ever’ inequality.

However, if recent trends in inequality continue it could rise there could be an additional 400m $2 poor in 2030 compared to today.

In sum, despite all these uncertainties there is benefit in using the available data to attempt to estimate global poverty in the future.

What actually matters is recognizing the uncertainty and bias and taking the time to look across a wide range of scenarios, approaches and assumptions for commonalities in future projections and then to be informed by that rather than the next set of poverty projections.

“Within this Famine Pit lieth the unknown dead.”

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At this year’s G8 summit in Loch Erne, Northern Ireland,  world leaders will meet to tackle the causes of global hunger. Sometimes the answer is right beside us. Close to the summit venue, in the grounds of a village church in Ardess, Fermanagh, a stone tribute reads simply “Within this Famine Pit lieth the unknown dead.” Perhaps the leaders should visit. Perhaps, too, they could consider the lessons of that history so they are not condemned to repeat it. Here are just a few:

  1. What is at stake is literally a matter of life and death. The million people who died in the Irish Famine in the Nineteenth Century, or the two million children dying every year from malnutrition globally in 2013, need to be remembered. They should be in leader’s minds when they ask themselves if something is “too difficult” or “will need more time”.
  2. Hunger is what happens when politicians fail. As the British Government acknowledged a century and a half after the Irish Famine,  “those who governed in London at the time failed their people.” As Mo Ibrahim says, “When a child dies of hunger it is first and foremost a responsibility of government.” 
  3. To tackle hunger, politicians need to be bold – in Nineteenth Century Ireland landgrabs by powerful land owners exacerbated poverty and conflict. Now, in developing countries, land the size of London is being bought and sold every six days, and the people living on the land sometimes don’t find out it’s been sold till the bulldozers turn up. It will take courage to take it on such a big issue. But if it’s not taken on now it will only get worse.
  4. Everyone will remember what the politicians do about it. For generations to come people will remember them. Will another apology need to be issued by future leaders for those who failed on hunger in Fermanagh in June 2013? Or will there instead be a celebration of those who that month started us on the road to Hunger Zero?

A reply to Jeff Sachs and Johan Rockstrom on fair shares and planetary boundaries

Dear Jeff Sachs, Johan Rockstrom, Marcus Ohman and Guido Schmidt-Traub,

I’m a long-standing admirer of your work, especially Johan’s pioneering research on planetary boundaries and Jeff’s critical contributions to connecting the dots between environment and development. But I’m struggling a bit with a couple of aspects of your recent paper on Sustainable Development and Planetary Boundaries, and wondered if I could ask you a few quick questions for clarification.

First, some background. Back in November last year, I published a think piece on how sustainability issues, and especially planetary boundaries, might fit in to the post-2015 development agenda. Like you, I argued that it was essential that the successor framework to the MDGs should explicitly recognise the centrality of planetary boundaries – and the consequent need for future growth and development to take place in a fundamentally different way.

I also argued that the only way to start making this agenda real is to recognise explicitly that “no developing country will assent to goals on natural resource limits without explicit assurances about fair shares to environmental space, and protection of their right to develop”. In practice:

“at regional and global level … emphasis on fair shares within environmental limits would reframe equity discussions around how to share out entitlements or assets rather than – as now – burdens. This would nudge policy discussions towards clearer recognition of the need to protect fair shares of finite environmental space for developing countries and poor people – and of the need for all countries to bring (and then keep) their own consumption levels within their fair shares, or else pay others a fair price for the right to use some of their entitlement”.

As you will recognise, my argument is based on the principle of “contraction and convergence”, an idea first developed in the context of global climate policy by the London-based Global Commons Institute. In essence, C&C argues that global greenhouse gas emissions must contract to within sustainable limits; and, at the same time, that countries’ entitlements to emit carbon should converge to equal per capita shares of the atmosphere, for reasons of both justice and realpolitik.

So I was interested to see that your paper explicitly mentions C&C at the outset – summarising it as a policy whereby “rich countries need to substantially reduce their standard of living, and developing countries can grow until they converge at the lower income of high-income countries [at which point] economic growth would need to stop.”

This, you argue, is one of “three unattractive alternatives” for reconciling economic growth and planetary boundaries – the other two being for the rich world to “kick away the ladder” and keep poor countries poor; or for all of us to head over the environmental precipice together. Like the ‘kick away the ladder’ scenario, you suggest, C&C appears “politically impossible in HICs, MICs and LICs alike”, given that

“Developing countries around the world want to achieve economic progress, end extreme poverty in all its forms, and achieve higher per capita incomes. These aspirations are right and cannot be compromised on. An agenda that posits barriers to growth will not be supported by politicians and people around the world. Likewise, it seems impossible that politicians in rich countries would ever agree to drastically lower the standard of living. And why would developing countries agree to  stop economic growth at a level of income that is below the income enjoyed by rich countries today?”

However, this is where I started to get confused by your paper.

First of all, I’m unsure as to whom you have been reading to give you the impression that contraction and convergence was ever about ending growth, or about trying to equalise per capita income; certainly the Global Commons Institute, which as noted above applies C&C to the much more specific context of the need to cap and then find a way to share out global emissions, argues no such thing.

To be sure, the underlying logic of C&C can in principle be applied to other international level planetary boundaries besides carbon – as for example I did in my paper on post-2015 and sustainability. However, this remains a very far cry from calling for it to be applied to growth or income.

(Indeed, in a paper I wrote for Oxfam and WWF in 2011 on Scarcity, Fair Shares and Development, I argued explicitly that campaigners should resist the temptation to jump into the limits to growth argument, and should instead maintain a clear distinction between limits to growth on one hand – where the jury is still out – and limits to key resources and ecosystem services on the other hand, where the basis for action is already evident.)

In fact, I have yet to come across any paper that argues that the idea of contraction and convergence is about limiting and equalising per capita incomes – and would see any paper that does argue this point as being based on either a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation. I wonder if you could clarify where you got the impression that C&C was about this?

The second question I’d like to put to you is about the ‘Sustainable Development Trajectory’ that you posit as the desirable alternative to the “three unattractive options” that you identify at the beginning of your paper.

In your first recommendation, you argue that:

“The science of planetary boundaries makes clear that are on an unsustainable trajectory. The world must reject the three baseline scenarios outlined in Section I (kick away the ladder, contract and converge, business as usual) and strive to achieve the Sustainable Development Trajectory.”

In your second recommendation, you then argue that (emphasis added):

“Achieving the Sustainable Development Trajectory will require an unprecedented effort by all countries – rich and poor – that will only be possible under a shared global framework for sustainable development. Such a global framework must have the following global features:

a) Provide an ethical foundation based on the principle of convergence and the “right to development”

As far as I can tell, what you are calling for here is more or less what I would understand by the logic of contraction and convergence: namely, explicit recognition that: (a) global problems need global solutions; (b) global consumption levels of key resources and environmental services must be brought within sustainable use limits; and (c) for reasons of both practicality and ethics, this has to be coupled with respect for the right to develop, and fair shares within finite environmental space.

So I wonder whether you would:

1) be happy to agree that the definition of C&C used in your paper is based on a misunderstanding – or, alternatively, point me towards the source for your definition?

2) concur that the logic of C&C as its advocates understand it (i.e. as defined above) is actually indispensable in reaching a viable synthesis of environment and development objectives at point when we risk overshooting planetary boundaries?

3) acknowledge that in cases where multilateral approaches based on quantified targets and timetables are needed – in the case of climate change, most obviously and urgently – then, by extension, the application of C&C must also be quantified, through the definition of (i) a global carbon budget and (ii) entitlements for all countries that are determined on the basis of convergence to equal per capita levels by some agreed date?

I should wrap up by saying again that I’m a huge admirer of your work, and agree very much with where I think you’re coming from – but since we all clearly agree on the crucial importance of the issues we’re discussing and their relevance to the post-2015 agenda, and since I think you may have got the wrong impression about contraction and convergence, I thought it would be helpful to write this note up to try to clarify.

Warm regards,

Alex Evans

Syria: why not a no-fly zone?

Enthusiasm for foreign intereventions from the sky seems to ebb and flow as the years go by. Back during the Kosovo intervention, Clinton and Blair were widely criticised for thinking that an intervention based on aerial bombing would allow them to get away without deploying boots on the ground. (In the event, Milosevic did blink first by accepting the terms of an international peace plan before NATO had to deploy ground troops – although the arrival of KFOR followed shortly afterwards.)

A few years later,  widespread calls from advocacy groups for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Darfur were met with scepticism in government, given the size of the country and the fact that halting Sudanese government air missions (especially “barrel bombing” from Antonov transport aircraft) clearly wasn’t going to halt the more fundamental problem of janjaweed attacks on the ground.

By the time of the Libyan civil war in 2011, no-fly zones seemed to be back in vogue, with France, Britain, the US, Canada and other countries undertaking numerous sorties over the country, as well as imposing a naval blockade, under UN SCR 1973.

Now, the world has been wringing its hands over the continually worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Syria for more than two years. Demands for action by the west are understandably mounting – yet it’s surprising that almost all the debate about possible interventions has focused on arming the rebels, with much less discussion of a no-fly zone.

I’m instinctively wary of non-specific demands that “something must be done” (see Max Hastings in the FT today for a good presentation of this view). But given that so much of the Syrian government’s advantage – and capacity to inflict atrocities – stems from its air superiority, a no-fly zone looks like a such an obvious option that it seems odd (at least to my inexpert eye) that it hasn’t been more widely discussed.

Still, this may finally be changing: Senate Armed Forces Committee Chair Carl Levin came out in favour of the idea last month, and rumours suggest that the Administration is thinking about it too – all the more so if it takes a decision to go in to the country to secure chemical weapons stockpiles.

Have NGOs gone soft on the Government?

“Non-Governmental Organisation” is a foolproof reminder to us of the one thing we are not: the Government. “Remember, we don’t work for them.” We must ward off the temptations of “access” just as Frodo must resist the temptations of the ring. If you work for an NGO and you never hear that the Government is angry with you, you should be angry with yourself.

So Richard Darlington’s challenge in a  recent well-argued piece in the New Statesman, asking whether NGOs have gone soft on the Government, is a vital one, and needs to be asked during every Government.

Well, have we? No.

Where we’ve been disappointed by government action, we have been very very frank. In response to the Welfare Uprating Bill, for example, that will effectively cut benefits for low-income families in the UK, we called the changes “Dickensian, cold-hearted and wrong-headed”.  We’ve demanded a clamp down on tax havens, and the cancellation of millionaires’ tax cuts. When the Government launched a legal action to prevent a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions, we accused them of “rank hypocrisy”.  We can do tough.

We can also do happy. The recent 0.7% aid victory was a real one. It will help 16 million kids get to school. It makes Britain the first G8 country to meet the international promise on aid, and resonated around the world, with, for example, Canadian MPs asking questions demanding their government follow suit. It is a tribute, to people in this government, in the previous government, but most of all to the British public, that this has been achieved. We don’t do champagne at Oxfam, but we did celebrate with a home made “0.7” cake and a big thank you to all our supporters. And we did say well done.

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I’m no fan of politicians, but I have seen for myself that the decisions politicians make can for people in poverty mean the difference between life and death.  And that sometimes they make the right ones. When they do, we say so.

At the G8 this year the UK government, as hosts, can ensure leaders tackle seriously the key root causes of poverty, including land grabbing and tax dodging.  If they deliver real results ,we’ll give praise where praise is due. If they let the world down, we will let the world know.

That warm feeling is us holding their feet to the fire.

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