Exploring the Sustainable Development Goals
End Poverty in All Its Forms Everywhere
By Allison Kooser
Originally published in 2017. Updated in 2021.
What Is Extreme Poverty and How Is It Measured? | The Current Status of Global Poverty | What We Can Do to Reach the Goal
In September 2015, UN leaders from around the world gathered to discuss the future of development. Having spent the previous 15 years making remarkable progress toward a set of targets known as the Millennium Development Goals, these leaders knew that the world still faced tremendous global challenges. Poverty, hunger, disease, and violence—while reduced—were not eradicated, and so the UN Sustainable Development Summit sought to reestablish a set of goals that would drive development behavior moving forward.
This new set of benchmarks, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), were unique in that they “call for action by all countries, poor, rich and middle-income, to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection.” 1>
And in the spirit of big, bold, world-altering change, the team was not afraid to start their list of Goals with an ambitious one:
End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
While this goal is certainly aspirational, it can also feel quite vague. What does it mean to end poverty? What is poverty? And how in the world do we begin to make progress toward this goal?
What Is Extreme Poverty and How Is It Measured?
The UN itself notes that “poverty is more than the lack of income and resources to ensure a sustainable livelihood. Its manifestations include hunger and malnutrition, limited access to education and other basic services, social discrimination and exclusion as well as the lack of participation in decision-making. Economic growth must be inclusive to provide sustainable jobs and promote equality.”2
Such a wide-sweeping definition is certainly accurate and comprehensive, but it is also difficult to measure. And one of the hallmarks of the SDGs is that they have tangible, quantifiable goals toward which the global community is working.
The current goal, put in place in 2013, is by 2030 to have no more than 3% of the world’s population living in extreme poverty—defined as less than $1.90/day.
In addition to this major goal, there are a number of additional metrics to measure progress out of poverty, including social protection services, equal rights to and improved mobilization of resources, building resilience to extreme events and disaster, and sound policy frameworks.
For the sake of clarity and brevity, we’ll focus on the broadest goal: eradicating extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.90 a day.3
For us as Americans, that number can feel remarkably vague. What does it mean to live on $1.90? What does $1.90 buy in other countries?
In 2012, I began participating in an exercise called Live Below the Line. Each spring, I spent a week eating and drinking on less than $1.90 a day – scrambling to find food that would provide enough nutrients and energy to get me through my day. It was understandably hard and I was constantly longing for the end of the week when I could eat a cheeseburger and return to the grocery store.
What struck me most powerfully from my experiences “below the line” was the realization that for those living in extreme poverty, there is no “end of the week” – and that $1.90 doesn’t need to cover only food. It needs to cover education, housing, water, food, clothing, daily expenses, everything. Even doing a simulation, the reality of it all seemed unimaginable.
Friends tried to justify the experience saying things like, “Surely $1.90 buys a lot more somewhere else than it does here.”
But the problem is that the $1.90 figure is calculated using purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates – essentially an algorithm that calculates foreign currencies into US dollars based on the power that amount has to purchase goods. Said simply, it means that extreme poverty is living on what you can buy with $1.90 here in the US.
Which is, as you would imagine, not much.
The Current Status of Global Poverty
In 2015, about 10% of the world’s population—736 million people—lived in extreme poverty. And this crisis has become more severe in the wake of COVID-19. The World Bank estimates that 150 million people will be pushed back into extreme poverty by the end of 2021—marking the first time our progress has reversed in decades.
Even without the impact of the pandemic, this number feels horribly, insurmountably high. Personally, it makes my stomach turn and keeps me up at night. Hundreds of millions of people are desperate, not even to thrive, but to simply survive.
But to focus on the scale of the current statistics ignores the progress we have already made over the past several decades in fighting extreme poverty.
Because even with the incredible hurdles that are now ahead of us, we have made progress. A lot of progress.
In 1990, 35 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty – 1.85 billion people. This horrifying statistic motivated the first Millennium Development Goal set in 2000: to cut the 1990 poverty rate by half by 2015. Thanks to remarkable initiatives, attention, and drive around the world, the world attained this goal by 2010.
That said, the progress made in the last 30 years has not been consistent around the world.
The majority of the reduction has been driven by Asian countries – particularly the development and advancement of India and China. In 2018, 80% of those living in extreme poverty today lived in rural areas, often in sub-Saharan Africa, where familiesthey are often poorly educated and rely upon agriculture to survive.4
These African farmers are remarkable, hardworking, and inspiring. I have had the joy of meeting many of them during my travels on behalf of Opportunity International. And each time I meet someone like Betha or Martin, I’m reminded of the circumstances that make success so challenging. They live in remote areas of fragile countries, far from markets and unable to easily access inputs. They, like every client I have ever met, dream of sending their kids to school – but education is often far away and inconvenient, and the cash flow of a farmer doesn’t lend itself well to a strict school fee schedule. And when a drought or a flood strikes, the farmers are the first to suffer.
As I sit across from the Bethas and the Martins, I know that life is hard. Wildly, incomprehensibly hard. But I also know that these people are incredible – and that everything could change if the right opportunities materialized.
What We Can Do to Reach the Goal
At Opportunity International, we are proud and honored to be a part of achieving this first Sustainable Development Goal, along with many of the other SDGs that are focused on improving the standard of living for families in poverty. Together with organizations and initiatives around the world, we spend each and every day helping amazing people break that $1.90 barrier. And in the wake of the pandemic, we are more committed to this goal than ever.
We invest in entrepreneurs, helping them create or sustain jobs for themselves and their neighbors. A job means an income, which means a cash flow, which means the ability to save and plan and dream.
Even in the midst of so many setbacks, our clients are moving the needle on extreme poverty—and we are fortunate to help them do so.
We have created tailored tools for farmers, addressing many of the challenges the rural, agrarian majority of those living in extreme poverty face. We work to connect them to markets, give them access to inputs, and help them move from subsistence to commercial agriculture – radically transforming their farms and their futures.
We invest in education, helping school proprietors build larger schools with better facilities where they can offer higher-quality schooling for kids around the world. We help parents cover school fees so that their children can stay in school, even when the family income is unstable.
We partner with other organizations and experts to assist our clients with healthcare, water, financial training, technology, and more.
Because, at the end of the day, our goal is the same as that of the UN:
We want to end poverty in all its forms everywhere.
We don’t want anyone to struggle on less than $1.90 a day anymore.
We want women and men around the world to have the opportunity to work, earn, save, succeed, and thrive. We want moms and dads to be able to fill their babies’ bellies and send their kids to school. We want students to be able to dream of and work toward hopeful futures. We want communities to improve and leaders to emerge and the world to change.
And we’re doing more than just wanting these things.
We are actively working to make them happen.
Because we’ve seen the progress we have already made in fighting poverty. We’ve seen the number of those living in extreme poverty halved. And we are confident that we can continue to reduce that number, even after the severe setbacks of 2020 and 2021, until we hit our goal—until no one is living below the extreme poverty line anymore.
The only way we can do that is to keep working tirelessly.
And the only way we keep working is because of you.
Your generosity is the catalyst needed to invest in entrepreneurs and create jobs and transform communities. Your generosity is actively, measurably changing the world.
Allison is a professional storyteller, freelance writer, and avid traveler. She spent the last year backpacking around the world meeting and interviewing incredible people with remarkable stories, eating amazing food, and climbing very scary mountains. Now, she lives in Chicago where she runs a small business helping nonprofit organizations identify, create, and share their stories, equipping them to better do the work they were born to do. When she's not working, you can usually find her reading a book, planning her next trip, or baking the best cookies on the planet.
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