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The SDGs could change the way we think about poverty

Written by Elizabeth Stuart, Tanvi Bhatkal, Emma Samman


​Ever since Oxford economist Paul Collier coined the phrase ‘the bottom billion’, the poorest people in the world were classified according to where they live. We now know that, in fact, three-quarters of poor people actually live in relatively wealthy countries.


But poor people are not an abstract concept: general classifications don’t do much to help understand the dynamics of poverty or offer useful ways of ending it. What really matters to poor people, as to everyone, are their own experiences and whether or not they’re able to realise their aspirations for themselves and their families.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the new set of global goals about to be agreed in New York this weekend – may just help shift the way governments approach poverty.

The need is clear: while there has been significant progress in reducing poverty in the last 15 years, often the most marginalised groups have hardly benefitted. Shockingly the world’s poorest 5% made no progress at all on the key Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing poverty between 1988 and 2008.

In our new paper, we define some of the things we know about what we’ve called the ‘real bottom billion’:

  • Around a billion people continue to live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25 a day. Around one third are children, although they make up just one fifth of the overall population. And more than a third of people in extreme poverty – an estimated 375 million people – are actually in work.

  • One billion people over the age of 14 have either no schooling or an incomplete primary education. Poor rural girls are often particularly deprived: on average, across 79 developing countries, 44% of poor rural females had four years or less of education, compared with 23% of young adults.

  • 800 million people are malnourished – three quarters of whom live in rural areas.

What’s really striking is that more than two thirds of people who haven’t had proper access to healthcare and education live in households where the head belongs to an ethnic minority. Being a member of a certain group – a child, someone living in a rural area, or a woman, or a disabled person – means you are much more likely to be left behind.

It’s not just developing countries where this is an issue.

In 2014 in the UK, people from black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds were twice as likely to be unemployed as white British people. In the United States, it is estimated that 10% of the general population identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender, but among homeless young people, this number rises to 40%.

As the experience of people in many middle-income and wealthy countries shows, poverty is not just a question of supply-side issues (i.e. whether or not their government provides health and education). It also comes down to whether a person’s inherent or ascribed characteristics enable them to readily access these and other opportunities, or whether they are excluded.

Here’s where the SDGs come in: they promote prioritising action for these groups and others, such as older people, ethnic and religious minorities, and people living with disabilities.

Some governments however may be less willing to tackle identity-based disadvantage. In some countries ethnic, religious, and sexual-minority groups may be deliberately marginalised by the dominant elite.

In addition, as our paper shows, minority groups face significant discrimination from wider society, which may in itself make their outcomes worse.

Reversing these entrenched attitudes and positions will entail a considerable shift in attitudes. It’s here that the global nature of the SDGs will be particularly important. The international scrutiny and pressure that they bring will make it harder for governments to relegate the needs of those who – so far – they have left behind.