Putting things in Perspective

At the moment, there are three serious contenders for what should be the world’s highest priority: extreme poverty and preventable disease, animal welfare, and global catastrophic risk. I believe the jury is still out as to which of these really is the number one priority, and perhaps other serious contenders will emerge over time.

I, for the most part, tend to believe that extreme poverty is the greatest moral crisis of our time. Often when I make this claim, I can expect a number of complaints. Isn’t it just my opinion that extreme poverty should be one of the world’s top priorities? Who am I to say that global poverty is worse or easier to mitigate than poverty in the developed world?

But the direction of causality assumed in these questions is exactly backwards. The reason I’m so passionate about extreme poverty in the first place is because of the overwhelming evidence showing the depth and breadth of human misery for which it is responsible.

Here I’m going to share just a few key statistics to put the problem of global poverty in perspective; the statistics that inspired me and continue to inspire me to study development economics. Before I begin, let me just clarify that all of the figures you see are adjusted for purchasing power.

For example, when I note that 900 million people worldwide are living on $1.90 per day, a common response is, sure, but $1.90 goes pretty far in developing countries, so that’s not a fair comparison. But no, the $1.90 per day figure already accounts for price differences between the US and whichever region of the world we’re talking out. That is, 900 million people are living on the equivalent of $1.90 per day in Miami, Florida.

With that being said, here we go:


The poorest quintile of the world’s population is 10 times as destitute as the poorest quintile of the US population.

The child mortality rate of Sub-Saharan Africa is 16 times that of the developed world.

We see someone in the US living on $12,000 per year and consider them below the poverty line. That person is wealthier than 85% of the world’s population and 8 times as wealthy as the global average.

We see someone in the US living on $55,000 per year and consider them middle class. That person is wealthier than 99% of the world’s population and 40 times as wealthy as the global average.

42% of the world’s income in concentrated in the hands of 10% of the world’s population (i.e. everyone earning above $17,000 per year). The poorest 10% of the world’s population (i.e. everyone earning below $700 per year) have just 1% of the world’s wealth. Source

The leading cause of child (under 5) mortality in the US is unintentional injury, which kills 5 in 100,000 US children annually. The leading cause of child (under 5) mortality in Sub Saharan Africa is malaria, which kills 550 in 100,000 African children annually.

This is in spite of the fact that we can save a child from dying of malaria for $3,500.

The number of deaths from suicide and violent crime, war, and terrorism combined is just 60% of the number of deaths from preventable disease each year. One important difference is that half of those who die from preventable disease are children under the age of 5.

Americans donate a mere 0.09% of their income to developing countries.

Less than 1% of our federal budget is spent on foreign aid.

Still, there is cause for hope. The number of people living in extreme poverty today is just half of what it was two decades agoMoreover, global inequality has been steadily falling since the 1960s.


I believe we can see the end of extreme poverty within our lifetime. It’s time to make this the world’s top priority.

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