Extreme poverty

Slum in Delhi, India
Slum in Delhi, India

Imagine living on the streets of a large city. Your income is pathetically small and is all spent on feeding your family. Your children seem always to be hungry and are susceptible to sickness and disease. Your daughter wants to get married but you cannot afford it. You are considering selling one of your kidneys.

Imagine living in a remote village. You have a very small plot of land but the soil is not fertile and the rains have failed. You have a little grain which you plan to plant next year but you wonder, should you give it to your children to save them from starvation.

Imagine you were born in Africa. The only water available is a muddy stream, three kilometers away. You know the water is full of bacteria, and you try to boil it before you let your family drink it. Nevertheless your son has caught a water-born disease and you really need to get him to hospital. The hospital is 2 days walk away and in any case you could not afford the treatment.

These are examples of families living in extreme or absolute poverty.

Relative poverty

The trouble with the concept of relative poverty is that it is extremely difficult to define and quantify. A person living in a developed country may feel poor in comparison with other members of his community but may have a life-style residents of other countries can only dream of. A citizen of a developing country may have sufficient income to raise his family well, but would seem to be poor when compared to people in richer countries.

Extreme poverty

Absolute or extreme poverty is quite different. At this point we have poverty at its worst. Any further reduction of resources would result in the destruction of families and communities.

Extreme poverty exists when people lack the basic requirements for life.

  • Lack of income means that the family suffers from malnutrition.
  • Lack of capital means there is no buffer to fall back on when disaster strikes.
  • Lack of medicines to deal with preventable and curable diseases.
  • Lack of clean drinking water.
  • Lack of even primary education meaning that one poor generation produces another poor generation.
  • Hopelessness, with no possibility of getting out of the situation.

These problems are not separate problems but are inter-related. For example a lack of adequate income results in malnutrition and that means people are more susceptible to disease. Disease reduces the possibility of earning more. Thus people find themselves in a vicious circle of poverty and despair.

Measuring Extreme Poverty.

Extreme poverty is often measured in terms of dollars per day income per person. Today, there are one billion people, living around the world with an income of less than $1 a day. There are two billion more people surviving on less than $2 a day.

A measure generally used to define absolute poverty would be an income of less than $1.25 per person. (80 pence in the UK).

Progress in the last 30 years

But there is some good news. In the last 30 years extreme poverty has been significantly reduced.

  • 30 years ago, 52% of the world’s population lived on less than $1.25 per day. Today the figure is 26% – a 50% reduction.
  • We used to say that 40,000 children died every day of preventable diseases. That figure is now more like 20,000 – totally unacceptable, but significantly better!
  • Smallpox has been eliminated. Polio is almost extinct. Progress is being made on a vaccine for malaria and with the right drugs there is an increase in life expectancy for Aids sufferers.

Challenge for the next generation

In a generation extreme poverty has been halved. The next generation could see it reduced to zero! Politicians won’t do what is necessary to make this happen unless ordinary people raise their voices and say, ”This is no longer acceptable!”

This is an age in which people have unprecedented power. It is the age of Facebook and Twitter, email and text messages, the Internet and blogs. We have already seen evil regimes collapse, using these tools.

It is time for the next generation to stand up against injustice with the clear message that extreme poverty cannot be tolerated. I am optimistic enough to believe that they can achieve it – and will do so!


You may add your comments below. Consider the following questions.

  • What can you do to reduce absolute poverty in your own community or in other parts of the world?
  • What do you think are the causes of extreme poverty?
  • Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future in relation to poverty?
  • What are the results of extreme poverty?

Author: George Dowdell

I was the founder of Karuna Action (formerly Kingscare) and was the director for 24 years. I have now handed control over to younger people but continue as an advisor and trustee. My passion is to see extreme poverty eliminated and to see justice for the powerless.

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