When World Bank President Jim Yong Kim says that the world can eradicate poverty by 2030, he might sound like he’s flirting with the impossible. Or, he might sound like John F. Kennedy announcing in 1961 that we’ll put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Intentionally dramatic, and deliberately timed.
“That’s the beauty of a time-bound, ambitious target — it forces you to change,” Kim told the audience in a speech at Stanford Graduate School of Business recently. “Setting time-bound targets is one of the most important steps if you want to achieve ambitious goals.”
He speaks from experience. As the previous director of the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS department, Kim spearheaded the ambitious “3 by 5” initiative, which was designed to expand AIDS treatment to 3 million people in developing countries by 2005. “Back then, just about the entire global public health community told us that we were crazy,” Kim says. By establishing the specific goal with a specific timeframe, “we stopped spending all our time arguing about whether treatment was possible and focused on scaling up.”
It’s a lesson he’s bringing to the fight against extreme poverty.
“If you want to do right by the poor, if you want to develop health systems that can do things for poor people’s health that never have been done before, you’ve got to change. And if you want to change a system, setting an ambitious target is a great way to do it.”
Moving the Needle
Kim spoke at a Shared Prosperity and Health conference, hosted by the Stanford Global Development and Poverty Initiative. Throughout his speech, he indicated why he thinks his goal is achievable — it’s already happening. In 1990, 36% of the world lived in extreme poverty. While there are 2 billion more people living in the world today, Kim expects that the extreme poverty rate will drop below 10% for the first time this year. “This is the best news story in the world today,” he says.
But he cautions there are factors working against this goal. He notes that by 2020, half of the extreme poor will live in fragile or conflict-ravaged areas, and the prospects for economic growth in developing countries are the lowest they’ve been in a decade. At the same time, there is easily enough wealth in the world to do away with poverty. “If we just redistributed, we could do it today. But we found that those sorts of approaches where you equalize outcomes haven’t worked well,” Kim says.
The wiser tactic is to focus on investments — in energy, education, and, most critically, health — that create equality of opportunity so that “by 2030 we will indeed be the first generation in human history to end extreme poverty.”
Refocusing on Health
Promoting growth has always been a priority for the World Bank, Kim says. In fact, at times it has seemed like the institution’s only goal. But growth alone, he says, is not enough to meet the goal of ending extreme poverty. Instead, the institution will target health.
“Evidence is increasingly clear that in addition to growing their economies, developing countries have to make investments in their people,” Kim says. “The most important ones start when a woman becomes pregnant.” He suggests an ambitious new goal to drive such investments in early childhood development: End the prevalence of childhood stunting.
Stunted children are malnourished, understimulated, and at risk for a loss of cognitive abilities. “Children who are stunted by age 5 will not have an equal opportunity in life,” Kim says. “Because if your brain won’t let you learn and adapt in a fast-changing world, you won’t prosper and neither will society. All of us lose.”
Kim says 26% of all children under 5 in developing countries and 36% of children under 5 in sub-Saharan Africa are stunted. “That’s nearly four in ten of sub-Saharan Africa’s children with frankly limited prospects in life. In my mind this is an absolute disgrace. It’s a global scandal.”
Still, Kim says, quick progress is possible. Peru, aided by the World Bank, cut its rate of childhood stunting in half in just eight years, and in 2012 the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, set a goal of reducing by 40% the number of stunted children under 5 by 2025. “That would still leave 100 million children stunted,” Kim says. “This goal, in my view, is not nearly ambitious enough. If equality of opportunity is indeed a value that we all share and we’re serious about boosting shared prosperity, we need to work together to set a target to end the stunting for all children well before 2030.”
Developing a new investment framework for health care systems will also be instrumental in ending poverty and achieving economic growth, Kim says, citing a 2013 report by the Lancet Commission on Investing in Health, a global group of leading economists and health experts, that determined that the economic return on health investment in low- and middle-income countries could be as high as 10 to 1. “Even here in Silicon Valley, 10 to 1 is a pretty good investment return,” Kim says.
“With the right investments, with the right program structure, we can reach what they have called a grand convergence in health outcomes, meaning that a child in Cambodia and a child in California could have the same chance to survive and live a long and healthy life.”
Ambitious, time-bound goals are only half of the equation, Kim says. We also need numbers. One of the primary deterrents to ending extreme poverty is a lack of basic data. “We just need to know more about what’s actually happening on the ground,” Kim says. “There are many countries in the world where we haven’t gotten poverty data for the last 10 years.”
In an effort to counter this, Kim says that the World Bank has made a commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to perform household surveys for every country in the world. In a video discussing the importance of better poverty data, World Bank economists explain that there are 77 countries in the world — nearly half of the countries the World Bank works with — that don’t have adequate household-level data on consumption and other correlates of poverty. It’s nearly impossible to understand the magnitude of the problem of extreme poverty without such information, the economists claim.
Erasing this data deprivation is a daunting task that requires thousands of interviews in each of these countries. But the investment in time and money to perform these surveys is critical to achieve the World Bank’s goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030.
“If you have the best numbers of anybody, you can actually create rhythm and pressure on the system, and that’s what we need to do.”