Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015

Laurence Chandy and
Laurence Chandy Former Brookings Expert, Director of Data, Research and Policy - UNICEF
Geoffrey Gertz
Geoffrey Gertz
Geoffrey Gertz Former Brookings Expert

January 20, 2011


Poverty reduction lies at the core of the global development challenge. For the international development community, this objective serves not only as a source of motivation, but as a defining theme across its work. Many of the world’s most prominent aid organizations cite poverty reduction as their overarching goal.

But while our common goal of poverty reduction is never disputed, we find it remarkably difficult to measure whether it is happening, and if so how fast. This is especially the case when it comes to producing global poverty data, as the challenges of national poverty data collection are multiplied several times over and then further compounded by the tricky—and unsatisfactory—business of converting national results into internationally comparable terms. Official global poverty estimates are only rarely produced, and when they do appear, they are out of date by the time they are published. Thus, when world leaders met in September 2010 to assess progress toward reaching the Millennium Development Goal of halving global poverty, they had to rely on poverty data from 2005. This, somewhat ironically, was the year of the last summit on the MDGs; the purpose of the 2010 meeting was ostensibly to review what had been accomplished in the intervening five years.

This problem is serious. The international development community cannot be held accountable for poverty reduction without a clear sense of the scale of the problem and an understanding of where poverty is most prevalent. Moreover, tracking global poverty is not just a niche issue but a matter of global interest. For instance, the G-20 has affirmed that the reduction of global poverty is integral to its Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth. While it may be easy for skeptics to dismiss global estimates as an indulgence for statisticians who excel in plucking numbers out of thin air, or bureaucrats who are overly concerned with messaging, the reality is that having a decent grasp on global poverty figures matters.

How many poor people are there in the world, and how many are there likely to be in 2015? In which countries and regions is poverty falling? How is the composition of global poverty changing and where will poverty be concentrated in the future? These are central questions for which we currently have few, if any, answers. This policy brief attempts to fill this gap by providing a best approximation in response to each of these questions, before offering policy recommendations based on these findings.