Extreme poverty slashed by half in 30 years

Left behind: Extreme poverty is falling slower in Sub-Saharan Africa than any other region.

Can we end poverty forever? Despite the news that last year saw the biggest increase in billionaires in history, the proportion of the world’s poorest has tumbled to less than 10%

Sometimes human beings are inclined to assume the worst. This tendency becomes particularly clear when we are asked about the world’s biggest issues. For example, when a survey asked people if they thought the rate of extreme poverty in the world had increased in the last 30 years: 58% thought it had, and only 10% said it had decreased.

The majority could not have been more wrong.

In recent decades the number of people living in extreme poverty globally has been slashed in half, from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has called this decline “the best story in the world today” and claimed that “We are the first generation in human history that can end extreme poverty.”

This recent dip is part of a remarkable trend that stretches back almost 200 years. Researchers estimate that in 1820, 84% of the world lived in extreme poverty with only a tiny elite enjoying high living standards.

But with the rise of industry, international trade, and economic growth, this number has come tumbling down to below 10% today.

The biggest transformations have been in Asia. In 1981 over 88% of Chinese people lived in extreme poverty. By 2013 the proportion was less than 2%. Rates have also plummeted in India where better access to electricity has vastly improved living standards.

But it is not all good news, as the graphic above shows. Conditions have improved far slower in Sub-Saharan Africa where 41% of people were still living in extreme poverty in 2013, down from 54% in 1990.

And because of increasing population sizes, the absolute number of poor people in the region has actually risen — despite the falling poverty rate. For example, Nigeria had 35 million more people living in extreme poverty in 2013 compared to 1990.

What is more, even with overall trends pointing downwards, famine can still strike. Currently, several African nations are at risk of this.

Can we really end poverty for good?

High standards

It is in our power, some argue. Poverty is not about a lack of resources, it is about their uneven distribution. Unfortunately, this inequality is deeply entrenched. Citizens giving money to charity will certainly help, but we need governments to take a firmer stance too — whether by cracking down on corruption or investing in long-term solutions.

It will only get harder, others say. The improvements we have made are remarkable, but this trend cannot continue forever. Most of the world's poorest people now live in areas that are hard to influence from outside — their poverty is entrenched through war and corruption. Furthermore, if the worst forecasts of climate change come true, droughts and rising tides could make things even worse.

You Decide

  1. Is eradicating all poverty a realistic goal?
  2. Is giving money to charity the best way to end poverty?


  1. Write down as many words as you can which you associate with the term “poverty”. Share them with your class. Are there any words that come up repeatedly? Do you think rich countries have a duty to help those suffering from poverty?
  2. Do some research into the ongoing attempts to eradicate poverty from the world — use the resources in Become An Expert to help. Whilst many agree that poverty should be ended, there is disagreement on how it should be done, and if it can actually be achieved. Once you have read around the topic write down what you believe are the best three ways to solve the problem.

Some People Say...

“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”

Nelson Mandela

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
People are classified as living in “extreme poverty” if they earn less than $1.90 per day — an extremely low threshold. Other countries have their own “relative” poverty rates which depend on the average living standards of particular societies.
What do we not know?
We do not know how quickly the poverty rate will decline in the future. The current UN target is to totally eradicate extreme poverty everywhere on Earth by 2030. However, based on current rates of growth the World Bank estimates that 4% of people will still be in extreme poverty by then.

Word Watch

Based on the responses of British people to Hans Rosling’s “Gapminder” survey, taken in 2013.
33% of respondents thought the proportion had stayed the same.
According to figures from the United Nations. People are classed as in “extreme poverty” if they earn less than $1.90. The definition includes deprivation of basic needs - food,sanitation, health, shelter and education.
François Bourguignon and Christian Morrisson, who published their findings in the paper “Inequality Among World Citizens: 1820–1992.”
According to projections by the World Bank, by 2015 9.6% of the global population was living in extreme poverty.
According to the International Energy Agency, 500 million Indian people have gained access to electricity since 2000.
According to the World Bank.
At risk
A severe drought has caused desperate food shortages in Somalia. A famine was averted last year after a wide-ranging aid effort; however, the UN has warned that the crisis could still worsen this year.


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