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The political economy of development
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Poverty and development: an (im)balance sheet


  • Unprecedented progress in surmounting poverty and improving overall human development has been made over the last half century;
  • The wealth of nations has increased sevenfold since 1945;
  • Developing countries are growing at an aggregate rate of 5 per cent a year;
  • The proportion of people in developing countries living below the poverty line has declined;
  • There is enough food for everyone on the planet. Developing countries increased per capita food production by some 18 per cent during the 1980s, largely through the Green Revolution;
  • The percentage of the world's population ranked "low" in terms of human development has shrunk from about 73 per cent in 1960 to 35 per cent by 1990;

And yet . . .

  • Poverty remains, endangering both the people and the planet: one in every five people lives in poverty, the poorest on less than $1 a day;
  • In absolute terms, there are more poor people in the world today than 50 years ago. Poverty is also increasing proportionally in Africa, Latin America and even in industrialized countries;
  • Income disparities between the richest 20 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent of the world's population have doubled from 1960 to 1991;
  • Eight hundred million people, 200 million of them children, are chronically undernourished and at risk from unsafe water;
  • The world's poorest 50 countries are home to 20 per cent of the world's population, yet they account for less than 2 per cent of the world's income;

The gap between the richest and the poorest

  • The 20 per cent of the world's population at the top of the income ladder receives 83 per cent of global income;
  • The United States remains the world's "powerhouse of wealth", according to Forbes Magazine, which reported that, in 1994, 129 of the world's 388 billionaires lived there, the richest individual having a net worth of $13.4 billion;
  • In 1994, transnational corporations racked up sales of over $4.8 trillion, a volume larger than all of world trade put together;

And yet...

  • The 20 per cent of the world's population at the bottom of the income ladder receives only 1.5 per cent of global income;
  • Over one billion of the world's poorest people - the majority of whom are women, children, the elderly, disabled, indigenous people, migrants and refugees - subsist on less than $1 a day each;
  • In the world's 48 least developed countries - with 10 per cent of the world's population but only 1 per cent of world income - both economic growth and trade have declined since 1980.

Regional perspectives


  • Real GDP grew by nearly 40 per cent;
  • The annual agricultural growth rate of 4.7 per cent over the past decade was the highest in the developing regions;
  • School enrolment gaps for girls dropped from 54 per cent to 32 per cent at the secondary level and from 65 to 35 per cent at the tertiary level between 1970 to 1991, the fastest closing educational gender gaps in the developing world;

And yet . . .

  • Seventy-three million people still lived below the poverty line in 1990;
  • More than 10 million were underfed and 80 million illiterate in 1990;
  • Over one million people were refugees at the end of 1993.


  • Per capita real GDP in East Asia increased by more than 6 per cent a year during the 1980s - almost triple the growth rate in industrialized countries;
  • Infant mortality in East Asia declined by 70 per cent, from 146 to 42 per 1,000 live births, between 1960 and 1992;
  • The share of women in the labour market (43 per cent) in East Asia exceeds even that in industrial countries;

And yet . . .

  • In East Asia, 170 million people were below the poverty line in 1990;
  • The urban population in East Asia, excluding China, is predicted to more than double, growing from 36 per cent of the total population in 1960 to 79 per cent by the year 2000. This would mean that inadequate physical facilities (e.g., housing, water, sanitation, roads) might lead to or exacerbate poverty.


  • Increased by more than 80 per cent between 1975 and 1995;
  • Thirty per cent of all private resource flows to developing countries ($412 billion total during 1989-1993) went to Latin America;
  • School enrolment at secondary and tertiary levels increased nearly eightfold (from 4 million to 31 million) between 1960 and 1991;

And yet . . .

  • One hundred ten million people were below the poverty line;
  • In many countries, the income share of the richest 20 per cent of the population was 15 times that of the poorest 20 per cent.


  • GNP grew at an average annual rate of 5.4 per cent;
  • Per capita income grew at an annual rate of 3 per cent;
  • Merchandise exports were 7 per cent between 1980 and 1992;

And yet . . .

  • South Asia remained home to more than 560 million poor people, nearly half the world's poor;
  • Three hundred million people did not have enough to eat;
  • The adult literacy rate is the lowest in the world.


  • Life expectancy at birth increased from 40 to 51 years, while infant mortality dropped from 165 to 97 per 1,000 births over the past three decades;
  • Adult literacy doubled, from 27 per cent to 54 per cent, from 1975 to 1995;
  • Five countries in the region - Botswana, Cape Verde, Lesotho, Mauritius and Swaziland - generated annual growth rates in excess of 5 per cent;

And yet . . .

  • The debt service ratio soared from 5 per cent to 25 per cent between 1960 to 1991, and the regional growth rate was negative (- 0.8 per cent) between 1980 and 1992;
  • Some 170 million people (30 per cent of the region's population) were undernourished;
  • It is predicted that half the population of sub-Saharan Africa will be living in absolute poverty by the year 2000.

Sources: Human Development Reports 1992-1995 (UN Development Programme), World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, International Fund for Agricultural Development, UN Centre for Human Settlements, United Nations Children's Fund, the Statistics Division of the United Nations for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis and Oxfam.

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information * DPI/1779/POV - February 1996

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