MDG1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger - Professor Andrew Dorward and Colin Poulton, SOAS Tue, 2009-06-30 02:08

The MDG1 targets aim to reduce poverty and hunger and increase gainful employment. Although there are substantial data and methodological difficulties in tracking the targets, it is clear that despite some significant achievements they will be missed in many parts of the world in 2015. It is very important to understand these achievements and failures, and their respective causes. Agriculture and food are critical to MDG1 in a number of ways, particularly in areas where progress has already been slow. There are major new challenges here, and important questions about the roles of states and markets in agricultural growth in poor economies.

Read on to read a full report of the presentation.

Millennium Development Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Professor Andrew Dorward, of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), highlighted the uneven performance across continents in achieving the MDG1 targets at LIDC’s conference on 5 November. He also noted the simplicity and arbitrary nature of these targets and emphasised the importance of agriculture and food in poor economies during the event at Birkbeck entitled No Goals at Half-time: What Next for the MDGs?

Limited and arbitrary targets

Dorward questioned the conceptual basis of the first target – to halve the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day by highlighting the limitations of an approach which measures poverty solely by income. He stressed the importance of other factors, including inequality, access to services, and education during his presentation, which was prepared with Colin Poulton, a Research Fellow at SOAS. Dorward underlined how the $1-a-day measure of poverty is an “arbitrary line” and he highlighted the uncertainty surrounding the figures. For example, incorporating recent adjustments in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) figures increased the estimate of the number of people living in absolute poverty from 1 billion to 1.4 billion. Dorward also raised concerns, given the world’s growing population, about MDG1’s focus on reducing the proportion, rather than the number, of people living in poverty.

Dorward continued by demonstrating the complex issues surrounding MDG1’s second target – to achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people. He asked if full employment is a meaningful target, when in certain developed countries some people are rich enough not to work. Dorward also said the data on employment is neither collected frequently nor reliable.

On MDG1’s third target – halving the proportion of people who suffer from hunger – there are significant methodological problems encountered when trying to measure hunger. As different definitions of hunger exist and conditions such as stunting and wasting are also considered, there is no agreed figure for the number of hungry. Dorward added: “Access to food does not tell the whole story about hunger or food security”.

Assessing progress

For the first target, Dorward showed how the world is on course to halve the incidence of poverty by 2015. According to figures in the UN’s MDG Report 2008, around 26 per cent of the world’s population were in extreme poverty in 2005 compared to 42 per cent in 1990. Rapid improvements have been recorded in East Asia, the situation has stayed the same in South Asia and has worsened in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the UN’s MDG Report 2008, 51 per cent of employed people in sub-Saharan Africa were living below $1 a day in 2007, very similar to the 55.5 per cent figure for 1997. Similarly, sub-Saharan Africa is lagging behind in progress to full and equitable employment. Dorward also showed how sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are off-track to halve the number of hungry people by 2015, whereas East Asia is on course. He added: “Africa really has no chance of achieving them [the MDGs]”. This is largely because of lack of progress in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s, before the MDGs were constructed: the MDGS were based on global trends in the 1990s, trends which were much more positive.

Importance of food and agriculture

His presentation continued by emphasising the “critical role” of food and agricultural for livelihoods and in poor economies where they are important for welfare and for driving economic growth. He explained how the role of the state is vital to achieving MDG1 and how the state has commonly played a role in the transition from an agricultural to a transforming economy. Dorward called for a more nuanced view of both market failures and state failures, and an approach which recognises the interactions between nutrition, health and agriculture.

Professor Andrew Dorward is the Economic Programme Director at the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP) at SOAS. He has had a varied career in development, research and training in a range of countries, primarily in Africa. He has long-term interests in issues affecting the livelihoods of poor rural people, in particular problems associated with risk, market access, institutions, and the interactions of agricultural and other activities in rural economies.

Colin Poulton is a Research Fellow at CeDEP at SOAS and specialises in rural development and poverty reduction in sub-Saharan Africa. He has a particular interest in the application of new institutional economics to questions of market coordination, development of rural financial markets, the organisation and performance of cotton systems, and technology adoption.