Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 7. Eradicating Poverty, Stabilizing Population: Introduction

The new century began on an inspiring note when the countries that belong to the United Nations adopted the goal of cutting the number of people living in poverty in half by 2015. And as of 2007 the world looked to be on track to meet this goal. There are two big reasons for this: China and India. China’s annual economic growth of nearly 10 percent over the last two decades, along with India’s more recent acceleration to 7 percent a year, have together lifted millions out of poverty. 1


The number of people living in poverty in China dropped from 648 million in 1981 to 218 million in 2001, the greatest reduction in poverty in history. India is also making impressive economic progress. Under the dynamic leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who took office in 2004, poverty is being attacked directly by upgrading infrastructure at the village level. Targeted investments are aimed at the poorest of the poor. 2


If the international community actively reinforces this effort in reform-minded India, hundreds of millions more could be lifted out of poverty. With India now on the move economically, the world can begin to concentrate intensively on the remaining poverty concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and in scores of smaller countries in Latin America and Central Asia.


Several countries in Southeast Asia are making impressive gains as well, including Thailand, Viet Nam, and Indonesia. Barring any major economic setbacks, these gains in Asia virtually ensure that the U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for halving poverty by 2015 will be reached. Indeed, in a 2007 assessment of progress in reaching the MDGs, the World Bank reported that all regions of the developing world, with the notable exception of sub-Saharan Africa, were on track to cut the number living in poverty in half by 2015. 3


Sub-Saharan Africa—with 800 million people—is sliding deeper into poverty. Hunger, illiteracy, and disease are on the march, partly offsetting the gains in China and India. Africa needs special attention. The failing states as a group are also backsliding; an interregional tally of the Bank’s fragile states is not encouraging, since extreme poverty in these countries is over 50 percent—higher than in 1990. 4


In addition to halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015, other MDGs include reducing the ranks of those who are hungry by half, achieving universal primary school education, halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water, and reversing the spread of infectious diseases, especially HIV and malaria. Closely related to these are the goals of reducing maternal mortality by three fourths and under-five child mortality by two thirds. 5


While goals for cutting poverty in half by 2015 appear to be on schedule, those for halving the number of hungry are not. Indeed, the long-term decline in the number of those who are hungry and malnourished has been reversed. The number of children with a primary school education appears to be increasing substantially, however, largely on the strength of progress in India. 6


When the United Nations set the MDGs, it unaccountably omitted any population or family planning goals. In response to this, the U.K. All Party Parliamentary Group on Population Development and Reproductive Health chaired by M.P. Christine McCafferty convened hearings of international experts to consider this omission. In a January 2007 report of the findings, M.P. Richard Ottaway concluded that “the MDGs are difficult or impossible to achieve with current levels of population growth in the least developed countries and regions.” 7


Summarizing the report’s findings in an article in Science, Martha Campbell and colleagues explained the need for “a substantial increase for support in national family planning, particularly for the 2 billion people currently living on less than $2 per day.” Although it came belatedly, the United Nations has since approved a new target that calls for universal access to reproductive health care by 2015. 8


Countries everywhere have little choice but to strive for an average of two children per couple. There is no feasible alternative. Any population that increases or decreases continually over the long term is not sustainable.


In an increasingly integrated world with a growing number of failing states, eradicating poverty and stabilizing population have become national security issues. Slowing population growth helps eradicate poverty and its distressing symptoms, and, conversely, eradicating poverty helps slow population growth. With time running out, the urgency of moving simultaneously on both fronts is clear.


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