December 23, 2014

Poverty, disease, and war are diminishing.

By Edward Gresser

THE NUMBERS: Number of people living in deep poverty* –

2011 1.0 billion
2010 1.1 billion
2008 1.3 billion
2002 1.6 billion
1990 1.9 billion

* World Bank estimates of people living at $1.25 per day, in constant 2005 dollar, October 2014.


Retrospectives typically recall spectacular events: crimes, elections, international crises, revolutions, humanitarian disasters. As 2014 draws to a close, here’s an alternative approach, focused on the slow, incremental, and hopeful:

The waning of poverty: World Bank statisticians define “absolute poverty” as life at $1.25 a day in constant 2005 dollars. By way of example, this would mean a family with three children, with a parent working in the informal sector at an average of $5 daily. This would be enough to buy two bowls of rice soup per person at 20 cents each plus a loaf of bread for the family at $0.50, $1 for travel around town looking for odd jobs, and $1.50 for rent along with any clothes, small utensils, or similar items the family might need. The Bank’s calculation for 1990 found 1.92 billion people living at this subsistence level. By 2000, the total had fallen to 1.63 billion. In 2010 it was 1.13 billion; the estimate for 2011, released last October, found 1.01 billion. This means about 25 million people a year were escaping the worst levels of poverty during the 1990s; about 60 million per year in the 2000s, and perhaps 100 million per year in the early 2010s.

The retreat of disease: Since 1990, world life expectancy at birth has risen by 6 years. Health appears to have improved most for children; worldwide deaths in childhood have dropped from 12.6 million in 1990 to 9.6 million in 2000, 7.0 million in 2010, and 6.55 million in 2012. Vaccination campaigns deserve considerable (though not sole) credit for this achievement, cutting rates of several once-common diseases by 95 percent or more. For example:

Poliomyelitis: The World Health Organization estimated 350,000 cases of polio a year in the 1980s. Since then the annual polio caseload has dropped by 99.9 percent, to 325 known cases (about 276 in Pakistan, 24 in Afghanistan, and handful in Africa) in 2014.

Neo-Natal Tetanus: Down only a bit less spectacularly, by 98 percent, from 787,000 deaths in 1988 to 180,000 in 2002, to 59,000 cases in 2008 and 14,800 cases in 2014 after campaigns to vaccinate pregnant women and improve antiseptic standards in poor-country maternity clinics.

Measles: After vaccination of 700 million children against measles in the last decade, cut measles deaths have dropped by about 95 percent, from two million per year in the 1970s and 1980s, to 544,000 in 2000 and 146,000 in 2013.

In general, health has improved fastest in the poorest countries. In these countries life expectancy at birth has risen by 9 years, from 53 years at birth in 1990 to 62 in 2012. Six countries – Cambodia, East Timor, Ethiopia, Liberia, Maldives, and Rwanda – have raised life expectancy at birth by 16 years or more.
The decline of war: The decline of war: Finally, as 2014 draws to a close, Trade Fact readers in the Western Hemisphere, Europe, and East Asia this Christmas Eve will have lived through another year of the longest recorded era of continuous peace among major powers in each of these regions. The Human Security Project, conducted at Simon Fraser U. in Vancouver, calculates an average of 150,000 to 200,000 battle deaths each year during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; then a decline to 95,000 per year in the 1990s; and most recently 20,000 to 30,000 per year since 2000. They also find many ‘zeroes’ since the Second World War:

“‘Zero’ refers to the use of nuclear weapons in war; to the number of wars between the two Cold War superpowers; to the number of great-power wars since 1953; and to the number of interstate wars in Western Europe or between major developed powers.”

As 2014 draws to a close, Trade Fact subscribers in the Western Hemisphere, Europe, and East Asia will have lived through another year in the longest recorded era of continuous peace between great powers in each of these regions. Not a world at peace, and not one with no risk of large conflicts; but still one more peaceful than at any time in the past.

What to make of this? Spectacular stories frequently deserve the attention they get. But disasters that did not happen, conflicts averted, and the effects of successful policy, activism, scientific innovation, and other useful things – which are often small in themselves, but large when spread across many people – are equally important and sometimes more so.

Certainly, poverty, sickness, and violence remain realities of daily, in much of the world and close to home. Yes, the gaps between what is, and what ought to be or might be, remain wide. But in these last days of 2014, the gaps look narrower than ever before. We wish supporters, readers, and friends a happy holiday season, conscious of our good fortune and mindful of those who have less.


The World Bank’s Povcalnet has figures on poverty worldwide 1981-2011: http://iresearch.worldbank.org/PovcalNet/index.htm

World Health Organization’s World Health Statistics 2014 has figures on trends in disease, life expectancy, and health policies: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2014/world-health-statistics-2014/en/

Simon Fraser Univ.’s Human Security Report 2013 studies trends in war and violence: http://www.hsrgroup.org/human-security-reports/2013/text.aspx