Make your work easier and more efficient installing the rrojasdatabank  toolbar ( you can customize it ) in your browser. 
Counter visits from more than 160  countries and 1400 universities (details)

The political economy of development
This academic site promotes excellence in teaching and researching economics and development, and the advancing of describing, understanding, explaining and theorizing.
About us- Castellano- Français - Dedication
Home- Themes- Reports- Statistics/Search- Lecture notes/News- People's Century- Puro Chile- Mapuche

World indicators on the environmentWorld Energy Statistics - Time SeriesEconomic inequality

The Faces of Poverty

"Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to self-reliance for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.

  • - Mahatma Gandhi

The faces of poverty are many. They are one in every five. The majority of them are the faces of women - those women who "hold up half the sky", according to the old Chinese proverb - and without whom victory in the fight against poverty cannot be achieved.

In addition, there are the faces of children, youth, the disabled and the elderly; of indigenous peoples, of migrants and of refugees - those whom "progress" has pushed to the periphery. Collectively called the disadvantaged or marginalized, they are the people who must be the primary focus of all serious efforts at the eradication of poverty.

Poverty also appears in many forms: as endemic mass poverty in the poorest and least developed countries; as pockets of poverty amidst wealth in even the most affluent countries; as sudden impoverish- ment due to natural or man-made disasters; as temporary poverty resulting from job layoffs; or as the persistent, long-term poverty of the marginalized who perform menial work for little or no pay. Whatever its manifestation, the social exclusion which accompanies poverty constitutes both a violation of human dignity and a threat to life itself.

An overview

Of the 5.7 billion people on the planet, as estimated 1.3 billion live in poverty, with income and consumption levels below nationally defined poverty lines.

Poverty affects individuals and families in every part of the world, although most of the very poorest people live in the developing world, where they represent one third of the population.

Asia: Numerically, the largest number of severely impoverished people, about half of the total, eke out existences in South Asia, which is home to 30 per cent of the world's population. Another 25 per cent of the total are in East Asia.

Africa: Extreme poverty is most concentrated in Africa, particularly in the band of countries south of the Sahara Desert. Africa has about 16 per cent of the world's total - but fully half of all Africans are impoverished.

Rural: Eighty per cent of the world's poor live in rural areas, the great majority in Asia and Africa. Sixty per cent of the rural population of sub-Saharan Africa live in poverty, along with 31 per cent of the rural population of Asia. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 61 per cent of the rural population are poor. Rural poor are mostly landless, or have farms too small to yield an adequate income.

An old struggle: For the world's poorest people, mere survival is a struggle. Life is shorter due to inadequate health care, food and access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Infant mortality rates, an indirect indicator of poverty, are about 175:1,000 live births in Africa and 100:1,000 in India, compared to 15:1,000 in the developed world. In sub-Saharan Africa, people rarely survive beyond the age of 50, as compared to 80 in Japan.

Life is also harder. In the developing world, according to the Human Development Report 1994, "a fifth of the . . . population goes hungry every night, a quarter lacks access to safe drinking water and a third lives in a state of abject poverty". In addition:

Illiteracy: Underfunded educational goals contend with exploding populations and, not infrequently, military priorities. The result: 500 million children with nowhere to go to school and a billion functionally illiterate adults.

Unemployment: Out of the world labour force of 2.8 billion, 120 million people are looking for work, but without result, while the vast majority of the absolute poor - 700 million - are classified as underemployed, often working long hours at back-breaking jobs that don't even cover the most basic needs.

Disasters: The poor are also particularly vulnerable to natural disasters such as drought, floods and storms, with little margin for survival when shelter, possessions and means of production are destroyed.

A new urgency: Such persistent poverty in an otherwise progressive world, experts suggest, is a result of a backlash from the failed "trickle-down" development assumptions of the 1960s, the frustrated hopes of a new international economic order in the 1970s, and the "lost decade" of the 1980s.

According to The Progress of Nations 1995 (UNICEF), "increasingly desperate poverty . . . has set up destructive synergisms of rapid population growth, increasing environmental pressures, rising social tensions, and political instabilities of a kind and on a scale which will eventually leave no community untouched".

Thus, engaged in an old struggle, but with a new sense of urgency, the groups below are those at greatest risk.

Poverty's youngest victims

  • "What would you like to be when you grow up?"

The young are the most vulnerable victims of poverty. For example:

Each year 13 million children under five worldwide die from easily preventable diseases and malnutrition;

Some 200 million children under five (36 per cent of this age group's total) are severely malnourished;

Even in the world's most affluent country, the United States, a child dies from poverty-related causes every 35 minutes, while nearly one in every four children under the age of six is currently brought up in poverty, according to the Report on the World Social Situation 1993;

Economic hardship and exploitation force up to 160 million youth into child labour and an estimated 2 million into child prostitution.

Youth: A resource at risk: By the year 2025, young people will account for only 16 per cent of the global population. Four fifths of them live in the developing countries, where they are at greater risk of living in poverty.

During the "lost decade" of the 1980s, an overwhelming 65 per cent lived in countries in the lowest income category of less than $1,000 per year. By the year 2025, some 88 per cent of the world's under 15 population will inhabit the third world.

An uncertain future: Rising levels of unemployment around the world affect youth disproportionately. In Africa in the 1980s, the youth unemployment rate was in excess of 20 per cent. Even in industrialized countries, youth unemployment is growing: in 1992 it reached 14 per cent in the United States, 15 per cent in the United Kingdom, 33 per cent in Italy and 34 per cent in Spain.

Youth unemployment is doubly detrimental in that young people constitute the major human resource for development. Whereas they should be the key agents for social change and technological innovations, instead they find themselves in a social category beset by uncertainties about its future and plagued by inadequate opportunities for self-realization - factors that fuel exclusion, marginalization and social deviance.

Poverty and women

Women comprise more than half the world's population. Yet, despite momentous strides towards empowerment over the past half century, it is still an unequal world for women, in which "the doors to economic ... opportunity are barely ajar", according to UNDP's 1995 Human Development Report.

An unlevel playing field: The World Survey on the Role of Women in Development 1994 asserts that discriminatory tradition is one reason women bear the brunt of poverty's burden, especially in rural areas, where women's access to health and education and to such productive resources as capital, technology and land is severely limited.

As a result, poverty remains stubbornly "feminized", with women accounting for a vast percentage of the world's absolute poor. In rural areas alone, more than 550 million women (over 50 per cent of the world's rural population) live below the poverty line.

Women in industrialized countries are also disadvantaged. In addition to "inherited poverty", increasing numbers of women are sliding inexorably for the first time below the subsistence level. In the United States alone, three out of five single mothers subsist in poverty, their ranks having increased from 5.8 million in 1980 to 7.7 million in 1990.

Education: Illiteracy is an open invitation to poverty. The need to trade off girls' education against immediate survival has resulted in a situation where 86 million girls throughout the world do without primary education. Two thirds of the world's 1 billion illiterate adults are women.

Female-headed households: Growing evidence of poverty among women has been linked to the increase in the number of female-headed households, a result of migration, family dissolution, male mortality or single parenthood. One third of families worldwide are now headed by women. Globally the percentage of female-headed households is highest in Europe and North America (31.2 per cent), where they constitute the poorest segment of otherwise wealthy societies. Following closely are sub-Saharan Africa, with 31 per cent, and the least developed countries as a group, with 23 per cent.

Unpaid work: Much of women's work, particularly in rural areas, is counted as unpaid family labour. In industrialized countries, two thirds of women's work time is spent in unpaid activities. Yet, according to the 1995 Human Development Report, if women's non-market work were expressed in terms of its monetary worth, it would yield a "staggering $16 trillion - or about 70 per cent more than the officially estimated $23 trillion of current global output. Of this $16 trillion, $11 trillion is the invisible, non-monetized contribution made by women".

Employment: All regions of the world reflect a higher rate of unemployment among women than among men. Women's labour- force participation has risen by only four percentage points in 20 years (i.e., from 36 per cent in 1970 to 40 per cent in 1990). In developing countries, 1992 employment participation rates for women were on average only 50 per cent of those for men (in South Asia 29 per cent and only 16 per cent in Arab States).

Paid work: At work, women normally receive much lower average wages than men. Gender disparities persist, even in developed countries. For example, in the Republic of Korea and Japan, the respective ratios of female to male salaries were only 47 and 51 per cent.

Credit: Limited incomes, lack of collateral and social and economic subordination drastically constrain women's access to all forms of credit. For example, in some African countries, women - who make up more than 60 per cent of the agricultural labour force - receive less than 10 per cent of the credit allocated to small farmers and only 1 per cent of the total credit allocated to agriculture. In Latin America and the Caribbean, only 7 to 11 per cent of credit beneficiaries are female.

Structural adjustment: The so-called "lost decade" of the 1980s, with its falling per capita incomes, soaring prices, increased interest rates and drastic cuts in government spending, hit poor women hard. The net result of structural adjustment policies has been to reduce even further women's access to entitlements needed to sustain minimal well-being.

Empowering women: "Human development, if not engendered, is endangered," the 1995 Human Development Report declared.

Fighting poverty requires creating an environment in which women can exercise greater direct control over resources. Relieving their multiple burdens by providing social support systems for health, family planning, education and care of the elderly is a responsi-bility for the State, the community and all family members to share.

Poverty alleviation for women means not just an increase in their income, but an increase in opportunities, e.g., access to productive resources, such as land, capital and technology skills, training and participation in decision-making.

Disabled persons

It is estimated that about 10 per cent of the world population - more than 500 million people - are disabled, which renders them more like to suffer economic disadvantages.

In developing countries, as many as 80 per cent of all disabled people live in isolated rural areas. Often they are among the poorest in the community, with little or no access to health care, medical facilities, rehabilitation or support services. Those with physical disabilities are also prevented by poverty from obtaining such devices as braces, crutches or artificial limbs, which would at least provide them with mobility.

Even in developed countries, studies reveal higher proportions of disabled persons among the poorest strata of society. Within poor families, the presence of a disabled family member compounds problems and increases demands on already limited resources.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) also reports that unemployment among disabled persons is two to three times higher than for other persons, and still higher in developing countries. When employed, disabled persons often find themselves confined to lower-level positions, owing to lack of education and training, restricted mobility or discrimination. Particularly vulnerable are disabled women, migrant workers and refugees - "a silent minority without effective pressure groups", according to the ILO.

Although most people will encounter some degree of impairment in the course of their lifetime, the elderly are especially prone to impairments in hearing, vision and mobility. As disability increases with ageing, this group's vulnerability to economic adversity and poverty also grows.

The elderly

The increase in the number of elderly people in the world will present one of the most profound challenges to the eradication of poverty in the next century.

According to the World Health Organization, the worldwide population aged over 65 grew by 2.7 per cent annually between 1990 and 1995, compared to 1.7 per cent for the overall population. In some developing countries, it may quadruple over the next 30 years.

Not only that, the ratio of elderly to working-age people, which measured 18.6 per cent in 1990, is projected to reach 28 per cent by the year 2020, putting great pressure on social safety nets.

The indigenous

"Poverty casts its darkest shadows upon indigenous people", Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali observed in his message on the occasion of the first International Day of the World's Indigenous People (9 August 1995).

From the Amazon to the Arctic Circle, in more than 70 countries throughout the world, there are an estimated 300 million indigenous people belonging to at least 5,000 groups which are linguistically, culturally and geographically distinct - descendants of the first humans in their regions.

Yet despite their diversity, they have faced similar difficulties in attempting to stave off colonialism or to keep pace with a relentless modernization. In many cases, they have been margin- alized and driven to the point of near-extinction.

Plagued by poverty and lack of access to basic social services, their living conditions are frequently appalling, especially in comparison with adjacent populations. For example:

More than half of the indigenous people of Peru - 79 per cent of the nation's population - live in extreme poverty;

In Guatemala, 87 per cent of the indigenous population lives below the national poverty line;

In Australia in 1991, nearly 38 per cent of the aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander labour force were unemployed. An indigenous family was 20 times more likely to be homeless than a non- indigenous family.


International economic migration is an intrinsic part of the development process, a response to differentials in wage and labour-force supply and demand and a desire on the part of many in less developed regions to escape poverty.

Migration has historically offered an important escape route from the debilitating constraints of excessive population and poverty, as well as from the devastation of war and ethnic conflict. Yet migration remains controversial due to the adverse effects on the welfare of sending and receiving communities and nations.

While the traditional countries of immigration - Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States - received some 6 million migrants between 1975 and 1985, quotas are increasingly being imposed as domestic economic concerns grow and the volume of illegal migration swells.

Recently, European countries, struggling with persistently high unemployment rates, have shown themselves increasingly reluctant - even hostile - to economic migrants.


Fleeing, often with only the clothes on their backs, from wars and ethnic conflict, the number of political refugees and displaced people today is estimated at over 30 million, or twice the population of Australia.

Between 70 and 80 per cent are women and their dependants who may spend months, years, even an entire lifetime in transit camps. Their lives remain "on hold" while they seek asylum or await repatriation.

That these persons are especially vulnerable to poverty, as well as abuse and exploitation of many kinds, is no surprise. What is a surprise is that, far from being passive victims, many try to be dynamic actors of change, according to Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Helping the disadvantaged

The Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development and the Programme of Action of the World Summit for Social Development urged that special priority be given to "the needs and rights of women and children, who often bear the greatest burden of poverty, and to the needs of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups and persons".

The Social Summit's Programme of Action stressed specific, people- oriented actions to be taken by Governments in reducing the burden of poverty, such as access to productive resources (e.g., credit, land, education and training, technology, knowledge and information) and to public services. Focusing on vulnerable groups, it also urged that all people be provided with adequate economic and social protection during unemployment, ill health, maternity, child-bearing, widowhood, disability and old age.

As Pope John Paul II said during his 1995 visit to the United States, when he addressed the fiftieth anniversary session of the United Nations General Assembly, the needs of the poor must be protected. "They too have have a role to play in building a society truly worthy of the human person," he said, "a society in which none are so poor that they have nothing to give and none are so rich that they have nothing to receive."

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information * DPI/1781/POV - March 1996

              Table of Contents