Think of a number

Peter Manley questions the single number basis for claims that absolute poverty is on the wane.

On 19 January, 2019 Bill Gates retweeted an infographic from Our World in Data — a Gates Foundation- funded, nonprofit website. The chart depicted the share of humanity living in extreme poverty, plummeting from 94.4% in 1820 to 9.6% by 2015. On that basis Gates argued that the global extension of free-market capitalism has been great for everyone. But his retweet re-ignited the debate about the validity of the International Poverty Line (IPL) definition of absolute poverty – living on $1.90-a-day – which was used to support his claims.

Anthropologist Jason Hickel responded to Gates with an article: Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing. He couldn’t be more wrong. And economist Branko Milonovic supported Hickel’s critique of the $1.90 a day metric. Meanwhile others, including Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker have defended Gates’ tweet and the global progress narrative and Joe Hasell and Max Roser at Our World in Data defended their methodology of the poverty chart tweeted by Gates.

The $1.90 a day IPL is a product of the International Comparison Programme – a worldwide statistical initiative led by the World Bank under the auspices of the United Nations Statistical Commission. According to the World Bank about 10% of world population is living on less than the IPL which is the “the minimum amount of income necessary to feed your family”1. The World Bank’s mission – carved in stone at its Washington headquarters – is “Our dream is a world free of poverty,” and the current target is to reduce absolute poverty to less than 3% by 2030.

The bank claims a 36% reduction in absolute poverty since 1990. This looks like business as usual as the World Bank is on target to eradicate poverty worldwide and Gates was right. It is not clear however

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