UN hunger and poverty data — reliable?

The stink is unbearable, garbage is strewn everywhere and clean water is at a premium. But the old movie theater in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is nevertheless home to Ngong Theavy, a young mother of three. And it is one she shares.

Hundreds of people live in the old cinema building, which has become a notorious slum, and most of them live on just a little more than $1.25 per day. It is a pittance, but according to the definition used by the United Nations, they are not considered to be suffering from extreme poverty. It is a definition that very clearly does not correspond to the lives they lead.

In 2015, the UN claimed that the number of people suffering from extreme poverty in the world had been cut by more than half since 1990. A significant contributor to this success story, the UN said, was the establishment at the beginning of the last decade of the Millennium Development Goals, which include, among other aims, the fight against poverty and hunger, the struggle for better education and greater equality, and improved healthcare and environmental protection.

The goals have “galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest,” the UN claims on its Millennium Goals website. In an editorial published in September, philanthropist Melinda Gates wrote: “Given what we have achieved so far, it would be difficult to overstate what’s possible.”

And there have indeed been positive developments in the battle against extreme poverty, illiteracy and child mortality in recent years.

But are the advances really a result of the UN campaign? And in light of the kind of poverty facing people like Theavy, how significant has this progress really been?

Researchers from a variety of fields have been extremely critical of the UN and have argued that the progress made toward achieving the Millennium Goals has been portrayed as more significant than it actually has been. The 2015 Millennium Development Goals Report claims, for example, that “in 1990, nearly half of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day; that proportion dropped to 14 percent in 2015.” Continue reading



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