We Can End Extreme Poverty!

As a proud father of a five and three-year-old sons, the recently endorsed and soon to be launched Sustainable Development Goals take on an even deeper meaning and urgency. My sons will be coming of age just as the promise of these new goals will either be realized or broken. When I walk through the entrance of the World Bank Group headquarters in Washington D.C. for work each day, one of the first things I see are the words “We dream of a world free of poverty” emblazoned on the wall.

For the first time in human history, we no longer have to dream of a world free of poverty, we can actually achieve it within my sons’ generation. Sadly, poverty often comes across as an abstraction or an overwhelming challenge for far too many people. In religious terms, I often refer to poverty as a modern day Goliath. Because just as the Biblical Goliath seemed invincible to the Israelites, poverty can also seem insurmountable, breeding a combination of resignation, cynicism and a sense of inevitability. The good news is that the world possesses the tools, the resources and the knowledge to end extreme poverty within fifteen years. And we can learn from over 50 years of development experience, both from our successes as well as our failures.

One of the most under reported success stories is that the world has managed to lift 1 billion people out of extreme poverty over the past 20 years. Part of the reason ending poverty is now achievable is because of this extraordinary progress. The World Bank recently released its latest global poverty figures and now estimates that less than 10% of the world’s population is living under $1.90 a day. Despite this progress, there are still roughly 700 million men, women and children who are living in the dehumanizing and degrading conditions of extreme poverty. To end extreme poverty by 2030, the Bank estimates that an average of 1 million people need to escape extreme poverty every week. This is the equivalent of lifting the population of the city of Washington D.C. out of extreme poverty every day.  While far from perfect, this income and consumption based measure represents a critical yardstick that enables the world to compare across countries and focuses our attention on many of the most destitute and marginalized people.

We know that extreme poverty has many faces, including the heart wrenching faces of far too many children. Extreme poverty is 800 million people going hungry each night, 1.4 billion people living in the dark due to lack of access to electricity and 2.5 billion people without access to financial services. Extreme poverty denies human dignity and destroys human potential.  

The World Bank is committed to helping to end extreme poverty through a commitment to spur inclusive growth; invest in people, including in health and education; and to ensure that people don’t slip back into poverty by providing social protections. We also know that we will need to combat climate change and foster peacemaking and resilience in fragile conflict affected states if we are going to be successful. Faith inspired organizations have critical roles to play in all of these areas and can play a particularly integral role in combatting social exclusion, since we know that going the last mile will require reaching the most marginalized and excluded.  

My personal commitment to ending extreme poverty has been inspired and framed by what I consider part of the unfinished business of the American civil rights struggle. Dr. King and so many other leaders fought not just for civil rights in the U.S. but for human dignity and economic opportunity across the world. When Dr. King accepted the Nobel peace prize in 1963 he said “I have the audacity to believe that people’s everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up”.

This past April the World Bank supported a diverse cross-section of faith-based and religious leaders who drafted and launched a shared statement entitled “Ending Extreme Poverty: A Moral and Spiritual Imperative”. On the eve of Pope Francis’ historic address to the United Nations General Assembly, over 100 of these FBO and religious leaders co-organized and participated in an event with the World Bank and United Nations to celebrate the contribution of religious actors to the MDGs and to launch an Action Framework to strengthen the contribution of religious organizations in realizing the SDGs. You can learn more about the statement and initiative here.

Moving forward, the World Bank Group will be working with the United Nations and other partners like Arigatou International’s End Child Poverty Initiative to make every October 17th a milestone and signature day to assess and celebrate progress in our shared quest to end extreme poverty. On the eve of this year’s End Poverty Day, President Kim visited Ghana to highlight the significant progress the country has made in lifting people out of extreme poverty. The Bank also released a new report entitled Poverty in a Rising Africa.   Together we can make End Poverty Day a day in which we redouble our efforts and raise our level of audacity to meet the aspirations of the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable people, a disproportionate number of whom are children.