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British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson took a moment at the Munich Security Conference to praise the "unadulterated triumph of what you might broadly call western values, technology, culture, and indeed western economic thinking."
Johnson’s main example? World poverty.
"The proportion of the global population living in poverty (has) declined to fewer than 10 percent today from 37 percent in 1990," Johnson said Feb. 17, 2017. "An even more staggering accomplishment for the human race when you consider we have added 1.8 billion people to the planet in that time."
Is Johnson on firm ground with those poverty stats?
He is, with minor allowances for uncertainty in the data.
According to the World Bank, in 1990, 35.1 percent of the total population had to survive on less than $1.90 per day, the official poverty line. In 2013, the most recent year in the World Bank’s Development Indicators database, the level stood at 10.7 percent. Bank economists estimated that in 2015, poverty had fallen to 9.6 percent.
Economic gains in China and India largely drove the drop in the poverty rate.
Charles Kenny, an economist at the Center for Global Development, a Washington policy group, told us there’s a little bit of give in the numbers.
"The calculation of global poverty numbers has changed a number of times since 1990," Kenny said. "Each time they 'back-cast' to 1990 to create a new estimate of that old number."
Kenny told us, given the unavoidable uncertainty in the data, "I'd say Boris was pretty much right."
But he cautioned that not all regions have benefited equally.
According to the World Bank, poverty in sub-Saharan Africa is just under 50 percent and the region has about twice as many poor people today as it had in 1980. "There are some stubborn pockets of poverty," Kenny said.
Johnson also mentioned the world’s growing population. He said it went up 1.8 billion since 1990. The U.S. Census Bureau reports it rose 1.9 billion.
Johnson said global poverty fell from 37 percent to under 10 percent since 1990. His numbers are quite close to those of the World Bank. An economist familiar with the assumptions behind the data told us that there’s enough uncertainty in the figures that it’s fair to say that Johnson has it right.
The one point Johnson’s summary ignores is that some regions such as sub-Saharan Africa have not seen as large a decline in poverty. So his numbers are correct, but the reality is very different depending on where you live.
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Munich Security Conference, Conference Panel on U.S. Transatlantic Relations , Feb. 17, 2017
World Bank, Global Poverty Line FAQ, Sept. 30, 2015
Brookings Institute, The Contradictions in Global Poverty Numbers, Mar. 6, 2012
World Bank, Poverty headcount ratio at $1.90 a day, accessed Feb. 17, 2017
World Bank, Global Monitoring Report 2015, 2016
U.S. Bureau of the Census, World Population, accessed Feb. 21, 2017
E-mail interview, Charles Kenny, Economist, Center for Global Development, Feb. 21, 2017
United Nations, Agenda for Sustainable Development, Oct. 21, 2015
The World Bank, Remarkable Declines in Global Poverty, But Major Challenges Remain, Apr. 17, 2013
Cato Institute, The Dramatic Decline in World Poverty, Oct. 7, 2015
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