Challenge of eliminating global extreme poverty

The drop in poverty from the 1980s to present was mainly driven by just two countries: China and India. The statistics for China are especially mind-blowing: In 1981, a staggering 88 percent of Chinese were extremely poor, but by 2013 that figure had dropped, incredibly, to just 2 percent. India’s figures, though not as drastic, are still impressive: In about the same period of time, the poor population declined from 54 to 21 percent.

Sub-Saharan Africa, by comparison, had a 54 percent poor population in 1990, down to 41 percent in 2013. Not only is the decline much smaller than China or India’s, but due to massive population growth in Africa, the absolute number of poor people actually rose by 113 million.

It’s important to note that while millions in China have risen out of extreme poverty, millions more are still relatively poor. Drastic income inequality has also arisen between urban and rural areas.

The working-age population in China is on the decline, and Africa has the highest birth rates in the world. Could the next wave of industrialization happen in Africa and catalyze another miracle like China’s? If so, the world’s remaining 10.7 percent extreme poverty would certainly decline.

Replicating China’s success, though, will be difficult on multiple fronts, if not impossible. Africans have already begun to leave rural areas in favor of cities, with an annual urban growth rate of almost 4 percent (as compared to the global average of 1.84 percent)—but those cities aren’t equipped to keep up with the influx of new residents. Basic services like healthcare and public transit are lacking, as is infrastructure.

Africa’s population has grown more than anywhere else on Earth—and it’s not showing signs of slowing, with a fertility rate of 4.92 in 2015, more than double the global average. The UN’s medium forecast puts Africa’s 2050 population at 2.5 billion, a number that would strain resources even in an economy dramatically stronger than the continent’s current ones.

An African Miracle, then, may not be in the cards. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Leaders in African nations can learn from China’s successes and its failures—for example, in place of a one-child policy, African countries should pour resources into family planning and education for women. They should invest in infrastructure now, when the working-age population is plentiful, to begin positioning the continent as the world’s next industrial powerhouse.

China is investing heavily in infrastructure projects across Africa.
China is running political training programs for African leaders, teaching them the tactics it used to spur development.
China has also given tens of thousands of scholarships to African students, and now hosts more of them at its universities than the US or the UK do.

If China can duplicate its success in Africa by helping lift its people out of poverty, making returns on its investments in the process, it’s unlikely anyone will complain.

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