World poverty seen falling sharply but patchily

09/16/2010 - MANILA, Philippines — It's lunchtime, but the cooking pots are empty outside Nurain Dimalao's shack. Her 7-year-old son plays amid the flies in garbage-strewn sand. She worries where his next meal will come from.

Baseco Compound, a shantytown of 50,000 people on the edge of Manila Bay, is the familiar face of poverty in villages and urban slums around the world. Yet there's also good news, albeit qualified: Worldwide, the poor are getting less poor, though not everywhere.

The share of the population of developing regions who live in extreme poverty is expected to fall to 15 percent by 2015, down from 46 percent in 1990, according to the U.N. The gains stem largely from robust economic growth in countries such as China and India, the world's two most populous countries.

Ten years ago, the U.N. set eight "Millennium Development Goals" to tackle the world's most pressing humanitarian problems by halving rates of affliction in such areas as disease, poverty and lack of basic education by 2015, compared with 1990.

But as a U.N. summit in New York next week will hear, the overall success in cutting extreme poverty is patchy from region to region. According to the World Bank, much of Asia has already met or is well on its way to meeting the goal, and Latin America is on track to more than halve its rate from 11 percent in 1990 to 5 percent in 2015, but sub-Saharan Africa is likely to fall short at a projected 38 percent. It was 58 percent in 1990.

In China, whose economy this year officially surpassed Japan's as the world's second largest, the number living below the international poverty line fell from 60.2 percent in 1990 to 15.9 percent in 2005. By 2015, it is forecast to be 5 percent.

By a U.N. measure of living on less than $1.25 a day, some 254 million Chinese remain in extreme poverty. The Chinese government uses a poverty line of $190 in annual income, or about 52 cents a day, and 40 million Chinese fall below that. Those bedrock poor are mostly farmers and nomads, mainly from minority ethnic groups in remote areas.

Farmers in central China's Funiu mountains were among the poorest just a few years ago. In Chongdugou village was a dirt track, families wove bamboo mats to peddle for food.

Change came as it did to many villages in China — through an idea and a road. A local official thought the area's forested mountains and waterfalls could draw tourists, so he drummed up funding to pave the sole dirt track in and out of Chongdugou. Today almost all the village's 350-plus families are involved in tourism.

In the 1990s, "people could only feed themselves, and some even starved. Children could not afford to go to school, and many could not even finish primary school," said Liu Jiandang, a 41-year-old former farmer. "Now, we've got paved roads, new houses, phones and vehicles. I run a hotel that can host 20 to 30 tourists and some rooms have TV sets, air conditioners, hot water and bathrooms."

With her profits topping 50,000 yuan ($7,000) a year, Liu can afford to send her 19-year-old son to vocational college and her 10-year-old daughter to primary school. "Our lives are so much better than before," she said.

India hasn't been as successful, but the U.N. says it is nonetheless on track to cut its poverty rate from 51 percent in 1990 to 24 percent in 2015. India's economy grew 8.8 percent in the second quarter of this year.

"The growth within India has been outstanding," said Caitlin Wiesen, the India country director for the U.N. Development Program. But as in most places, the prosperity isn't evenly shared. "Growth needs to be job-rich and also needs to focus on agricultural productivity and production," she said.

Even if the poor make up only 15 percent of the developing world's population by 2015, as the U.N. projects, that would still leave 920 million people in extreme poverty.

Dimalao, in the Manila slum, may well be one of them.

Twenty years ago she left her home in the impoverished southern Philippines, tired of hardship and being caught in the war between government troops and Muslim rebels.

In Manila she hoped to get a job as a maid in Saudi Arabia and join the 10 percent of Filipinos who work abroad. But without money for the high fees charged by recruitment agencies, she ended up as a vendor until she quit to take care of her two children.

Her husband, a security guard, drops by occasionally and sometimes hands her 500 pesos ($10), but he has not been paid in full in the last seven months. He too wanted to work abroad, but a job recruiter ran off with his money.

"I sometimes think of going back to work as a vendor but I have no capital," said Dimalao, now 40. "I would like to be able to provide for my children, but I also can't work because no one will look after them."

Their situation worsened in January, when a fire razed their neighborhood. They now live in a leaky plywood-and-tarpaulin shack, vulnerable to typhoons.

The Philippines issued a progress report this month that lowered its chances of meeting three out of four poverty-related goals by 2015.

It said 32.6 percent of Filipinos were below the poverty line in 2006, and it may miss the U.N. goal for 2015, but saw a "high probability" of halving the proportion who cannot afford to buy the food they need.

The government blamed rising food and oil prices, slower income growth and faster population growth — and warned that bleaker times may lie ahead.

Jacqueline Badcock, the U.N. resident representative in the Philippines, said she was disappointed with the country's slide in progress. Natural disasters such as typhoons and floods also have cut gains, she said.

U.N. officials point out that some nearby countries such as Thailand, which has tempered its population growth, increased economic output and reduced poverty rates, are already setting bolder targets above the Millennium Development Goals.

In India, the government runs a massive social welfare program that guarantees all rural families 100 days of work a year at a wage of 100 rupees (about $2) a day.

In the village of Suwana in Rajasthan state, Vimla Sharma said her family scraped by on her husband's meager earnings from working at a temple before she signed up for the work program two years ago.

The extra money has allowed her to add a room and a kitchen to her house and send her teenage daughter to school.

"Before, we wore torn and tattered clothes," she said. The program "has made it possible for us to take care of our household needs."

She only wishes the program could be extended. "There are 100 days of work in a year," she said. "Once these 100 days are over, what will the women do?" (The Associated Press)

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