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China leads battle against poverty, says UN

By Thalif Deen | Last updated: Jul 19, 2013 - 12:10:25 PM

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UNITED NATIONS (IPS) - The United Nations has singled out China—the world’s most populous country with over 1.3 billion people—as one of the key success stories in the longstanding battle against poverty.

Although extreme poverty rates have fallen in every developing region, says a new 60-page report released here, China is way ahead of the pack.

In China, extreme poverty dropped from 60 percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 2005 and 12 percent in 2010.

Still, “poverty remains widespread in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, although progress in the latter region has been substantial,” according to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Report 2013, released July 8.

Following the launch of the report in Geneva, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the MDGs as “the most successful global anti-poverty push in history.”

The study takes stock of the successes and failures of the MDGs—aimed primarily at fighting poverty, hunger, illiteracy, disease and gender discrimination—which were approved at a summit of world leaders in September 2000, with a targeted deadline of 2015.

Despite impressive achievements at the global level, the study said, 1.2 billion people are still living in extreme poverty.

While trumpeting some of the successes, including big gains in improved health and reduction in hunger, the report says progress towards achieving the MDGs has been uneven—not only among regions and countries but also between population groups within countries.

The study also says that over 2 billion people gained access to improved sources of drinking water and there were “remarkable gains” in the fight against malaria and tuberculosis.

The bad news is that environmental sustainability is under severe threat, too many children are still denied their right to primary education, and there is less aid money overall, with the poorest countries most adversely affected.

Roberto Bissio, coordinator of the Uruguay-based Social Watch, an international non-governmental organization advocating poverty eradication, told IPS the reduction of income poverty, highlighted as the single major achievement of the MDGs, happened almost exclusively in China.

“But it happened mainly before the year 2000, and thus cannot be honestly attributed as a success of the MDGs,” he added.

In fact, it is a mere statistical victory due to a lowering of the goal, he argued.

While the 2000 Millennium Declaration clearly said that “more than a billion people are currently subjected to extreme poverty” and therefore resolved “to half, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day,” the first MDG was explained as meaning “between 1990 and 2015.”

Thus, the bar was lowered and the goal was proclaimed as having been achieved in 2010, even when at that date the official number of people in extreme poverty was 1.3 billion, 30 percent more than in 2000, he pointed out.

Shobha Das, director of programs at the London-based Minority Rights Group, told IPS that the MDGs served to build a global discourse around development needs, and they have achieved much.

“However, the MDGs appear to have consistently failed minorities and indigenous peoples around the world,” she said.

For example, in India, poverty rates have remained higher for minorities and indigenous peoples as compared to the overall population, she noted.

In Uganda, rates of malnourishment are higher for the minority pastoralist population than for non-pastoralists.

In Peru, a lower proportion of children from the Afro-Peruvian community complete primary school than the overall national rate.

A key reason for these disparities, she pointed out, is that governments have not been encouraged or incentivized to resist cherry-picking in the scramble to meet MDG targets.

“This has meant they have reached the easiest to reach populations, who are usually the majority communities, and left behind the harder to reach populations, who are usually minorities,” Das added.

An eye on inequality is therefore key to the success of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals, to be launched as part of the U.N.’s post-2015 development agenda.

“Without clear targets to reduce inequality and spread the benefits of development equally, it is all too likely that the failures of the MDGs for minorities and indigenous peoples will be repeated post-2015,” she said.