Challenging the UN’s good news story about poverty and hunger

What we need is to fundamentally re-think the way our global economy distributes resources
Children in Uganda. Ludi, used under CC0 public domain

How do we count how many people in the world are in poverty or hungry? And should we question those figures?

The United Nations celebrates its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as, “the most successful anti-poverty movement in history,” claiming that global poverty has been halved and global hunger nearly halved since 1990. Yet Dr Jason Hickel, a Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, calls these assertions, “misleading at best and intentionally inaccurate at worst” in his paper 'The true extent of global poverty and hunger: Questioning the good news narrative of the Millennium Development Goals'

“The UN has a monopoly on the narrative about whether hunger and poverty are getting better or worse,” said Dr Hickel. “This is very powerful – the UN tells us that poverty and hunger are getting better, and this lends a kind of moral justification to the present order of the global economy.

“However, if these numbers are not correct, and poverty and hunger are actually getting worse, we would be forced to confront the fact that the global economy is fundamentally unfair and not working for the majority of humanity.”

Shifting goal posts

The UN's narrative about poverty reduction rests on goal posts that have shifted ever since the first global commitment to address a key aspect of poverty was made during the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996. In the Rome Declaration the world's governments boldly committed to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level by 2015.

However, four years later when the Millennium Declaration was signed, governments committed to subtly different goals – to halve ‘the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger’. This switch from absolute numbers to proportions made the goal easier to achieve because it could take advantage of population growth.

Later, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the quantifiable targets which would deliver the commitments of the Millennium Declaration – pledged to halve the proportion of impoverished and hungry people in developing countries only, thus taking advantage of faster growing populations.

In addition, the starting point of analysis was moved from 2000 back to 1990. This allowed the UN to claim gains in poverty and hunger that were achieved – mostly in China – before the MDGs were even implemented. These changes have allowed the MDGs to claim success when, in fact, the original goals remain far out of reach.

Defining hunger and poverty

Not only have the goal posts been shifted, but the definitions of poverty and hunger have been massaged in a way that tends to support a positive narrative.

In 1990 the World Bank adopted a dollar-a-day as the first ever International Poverty Line (IPL) on the basis that the poverty lines of some of the world’s poorest countries clustered around that level.

However, using the IPL, the World Bank had to announce in 2000 that the number of people in poverty was rising – up from from 1.2 billion in 1987 to 1.5 billion in 2000. This rise indicated that the structural adjustment programmes imposed by the World Bank and the IMF on the global South countries during the 1980s and 1990s were making poverty significantly worse.

“Structural adjustment programmes involved forced market liberalisation, deregulation, privatisation, and cuts to social spending. This was supposed to help developing economies grow, but the figures were showing that the exact opposite was happening,” said Dr Hickel. “GDP growth was stagnating and poverty was on the rise. But instead of confronting this reality, the World Bank switched the numbers and within a year they were telling the exact opposite story.”

Indeed, in 2001 the World Bank's president James Wolfensohn delivered a speech in which he said that structural adjustment had actually reduced poverty in the developing world by an estimated 200 million since 1980. Then, three years later, the World Bank published new official estimates, which stated that 400 million people had been rescued from extreme poverty.

This was possible because the Bank changed the IPL. In 2000, they moved it from the original $1.02 to $1.08. While the new line seemed higher at face value, in real terms (accounting for purchasing power parity across countries) it was actually lower. Pushing the IPL lower made the poverty trend look better. The Bank changed the IPL a second time in 2008, to $1.25. Once again, this made the poverty trend look yet better, and created the illusion that an additional 121 million people had been lifted from poverty.

Furthermore, because the IPL is based on the national poverty lines of the very poorest countries, it tells us little about what poverty is like in slightly better-off countries. For example, in a 1990 survey in Sri Lanka showed that 40 per cent of the population fell under its national poverty line, while the World Bank – using the IPL – reported only four per cent in the same year.

Dr Hickel claims that the IPL is far too low to support basic human existence. He cites a number of researchers who argue that in order to give a meaningful picture of global poverty, the IPL needs to be at least $5/day (PPP 2008). If we measure poverty at this level, we see that at least 4.3 billion people are in poverty (60 per cent of humanity), which is four times what the MDGs would have us believe. And the number has been rising over time, not falling.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)’s hunger figures have also been subject to alteration. In 1992 they reported that the baseline number of hungry people in the developing world was 786 million. In 2001 it reported that 777 million were hungry. This would suggest very little progress against hunger. But by revising the baseline figure up to 816 million they were able to claim much more substantial gains. The baseline was shifted yet again in 2004, once again making the hunger trend appear better than it otherwise would have been.

He also questions the FAO's definition of hunger which counts people as hungry only when their caloric intake falls below the ‘energy requirements for minimum activity levels, or sedentary lifestyles.’ This ignores the fact that most poor people do not live sedentary lifestyles – rather they are usually engaged in demanding physical labour.

“If we measure hunger at more reasonable caloric thresholds we see that the number of hungry is at least double what the FAO claims – and the number is rising, not falling,” he said.

MDGs – too good to be true?

Dr Hickel argues that through the MDGs, the UN has misrepresented the true extent for poverty and hunger. “By massaging the numbers, the UN has created a good news narrative that justifies the present economic order and its logic of growth, liberalisation, privatisation and corporate power. If we look at more accurate measurements, which show high and increasing levels of poverty and hunger, then it becomes clear that the system is simply not working for the majority of humanity,” he said.

He points out that the dominant development model relies on promoting GDP growth. "GDP growth is not an adequate solution to poverty and hunger – at least without strong redistributive measures. A much more promising approach is hidden in the poverty and hunger numbers themselves,” he said.

Here, Dr Hickel is referring to the World Bank and FAO’s own figures which show a reduction of poverty and hunger in the 1960s and 1970s, when global South countries were employing strategies such as trade tariffs, subsidies, public spending and regulation of foreign capital. However, the World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programmes reversed these policies during the 1980s and 1990s, and made real progress much more difficult to achieve he argues.

“Our economic system is perpetuating unacceptable levels of poverty and hunger. Giving a little bit of aid, or tweaking the system around the edges to make it a little bit more humane is not going to cut it,” he argued. “What we need is to fundamentally re-think the way our global economy distributes resources.”

Behind the article

For full details of Dr Jason Hickel research and publications see his profile on the LSE experts directory.

The true extent of global poverty and hunger: Questioning the good news narrative of the Millennium Development Goals