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There is little hope of winning the war against poverty without first tackling inequality.

By the beginning of 2014, the 85 richest people on the planet had accumulated as much wealth between them as the poorest 3.5 billion. The disparities in economic and political power are widening, inevitably heightening social tensions and increasing the risk of societal breakdown. The issue of inequality must be addressed if the fight against poverty is to be successful. Growing inequality is creating a vicious circle in which wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a very few, leaving the rest of the world’s population to fight over the crumbs that fall from the table.

Poverty is generally defined as deprivation of the basic need for clean air and water, food, shelter and health care. Most economists believe that the best way to help the poor is by achieving economic growth, which:

  • creates more jobs;
  • enables more wealth to reach workers; and
  • generates greater tax revenues that can be used to help the poor to help themselves.

However, the facts show that in recent years this scenario has not been realised. The benefits of economic growth have flowed upwards to the top 20 percent of the world’s population, rather than down to the bottom 20 percent.

Critics of the economic growth paradigm believe that an interrelated, systematic approach to the problems of poverty, environmental degradation and population growth is needed instead. They have formulated several simple principles in order to achieve a more sustainable and fair development model:

  • Protect what works. This involves learning where and how people live sustainably, and not disrupting these cultures.
  • Make use of local wisdom, skills and resources. This is based on the belief that, generally speaking, the poor know more about poverty, survival, environmental sustainability and local needs than any cohort of external bureaucrats and experts.
  • Foster greater individual and community self-reliance. This includes promoting the fairer distribution of land and incomes, the sustainable use of local resources and the creation of local jobs, while reducing dependence on outside suppliers, banks and aid donors.

Some of the most shocking facts about global poverty are outlined below.


  • One in every two people in the world lives on less than USD 2.50 a day.
  • At least 80 percent of the world's population live on less than USD 10 a day.
  • The combined gross domestic product (GDP) of the world’s 41 heavily indebted poor countries (with a total population of approximately 567 million) is less than the wealth of the world’s seven richest people combined.
  • For every USD 1 in aid received by a developing country, more than USD 25 are spent on debt repayment.
  • Approximately 790 million people in the developing world are still chronically undernourished, almost two-thirds of them living in Asia and the Pacific.

Children's heath

  • According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 22,000 children die each day as a result of poverty. They die in some of the world's poorest villages, out of sight and removed from the global conscience. Meek and weak in life, these dying multitudes are invisible in death.
  • Around 27 or 28 percent of all children in developing countries are estimated to be underweight or suffering from stunted growth, most of them in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • There are 2.2 billion children in the world, and 1 billion of them live in poverty — that is, almost every second child.
  • Of the 1.9 billion children in the developing world, 640 million do not have adequate shelter (one in three); 400 million do not have access to safe drinking water (one in five); and 270 million have no access to health-care services (one in seven).

Literacy and education

  • About 121 million children worldwide are not currently receiving an education, and over half of them are girls.
  • Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their name.
  • Less than 1 percent of what the world spends each year on weapons would be needed to put every child into school.


  • Infectious diseases continue to blight the lives of the poor across the world.
  • An estimated 40 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, which leads to 3 million deaths per year.
  • Every year there are between 350 and 500 million cases of malaria, with 1 million fatalities. Ninety percent of deaths from malaria are in Africa, and over 80 percent of malaria victims worldwide are African children.
  • Each year, 2.2 million children die because they are not immunised.
  • By 2003, a total of 15 million children had been orphaned due to HIV/AIDS.

Water supply

  • Every year 1.4 million children die because of lack of access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.
  • Some 1.1 billion people in developing countries do not have adequate access to water, and 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation.
  • Out of the wealthiest 20 percent of the world's population, 85 percent have piped water supply in their homes. Out of the poorest 20 percent, just 20 percent have access to piped water.
  • The 1.8 billion people who have access to a water source within 1 kilometre, but not in their home or yard, consume around 20 litres of water per day. In the United Kingdom (where the average daily water usage is about 150 litres per day) the average person uses more than 50 litres of water a day just for flushing the toilet. The highest average water consumption in the world is in the United States, at 600 litres per day.
  • Every year, 443 million school days are lost due to water-related illness.
  • Close to half of all people in developing countries are suffering at any given time from a health problem caused by inadequate water supply and sanitation.
  • Millions of women spend several hours a day collecting water.


  • Three out of every four people in rural areas live on less than USD 1 a day, and a similar proportion of the world's population suffer from malnutrition. However, urbanisation is not synonymous with progress. The growth of urban slums is outpacing urban population growth by a wide margin.
  • More than half of the world’s population now live in cities and towns. In 2005, one in every three urban inhabitants (approximately 1 billion people) were living in slum conditions.

Living conditions

  • In developing countries, some 2.5 billion people are forced to rely on biomass (wood fuel, charcoal and animal dung) to meet their energy needs for cooking. In Sub-Saharan Africa, over 80 percent of the population depend on traditional biomass for cooking, as do over half of the people living in India and China.
  • Indoor air pollution resulting from the use of solid fuels (among poorer segments of society) is a major killer. It claims the lives of 1.5 million people each year, more than half of them below the age of five — some 4,000 deaths a day. This number exceeds total deaths from malaria and rivals the number of deaths from tuberculosis.
  • A quarter of the human population, 1.6 billion people, live without electricity.

Meanwhile, in richer parts of the world, figures for annual expenditure include:

  • USD 8 billion on cosmetics (in the US);
  • USD 11 billion on ice cream (in Europe);
  • USD 17 billion on pet food (in Europe and the US);
  • USD 35 billion on business-related entertainment (in Japan);
  • USD 155 billion on cigarettes and alcoholic beverages (in Europe);
  • USD 400 billion on narcotic drugs (worldwide); and
  • USD 800 billion for military purposes (worldwide).

So how much would it cost to provide universal access to basic social services in all developing countries?

  • USD 6 billion for basic education for all;
  • USD 9 billion for water and sanitation for all;
  • USD 12 billion for reproductive health care for all women; and
  • USD 13 billion for basic health care and nutrition for all.

Source: Global Issues website: