Fudging the Numbers Is UN Hunger and Poverty Data Reliable?

The UN is celebrating: Hunger and poverty around the world are in decline according to data from the global body. But that success is not nearly as great if you scrutinize the numbers.
A slum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (archive photo)

A slum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (archive photo)


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."

That statement is not factually inaccurate, but the goals were only established in 2000. As such, they could not have had any effect on developments during the decade before the new millennium. But as can be seen in the graph below, in the decade from 1990 to 2000 the number of people suffering from extreme poverty was already declining steeply. By choosing 1990 as its year of comparison, it looks as though the UN is claiming this development as its own.

And that's not only true of the battle against poverty. The American statistician and UN employee Howard Friedman concluded in a 2013 paper  that the positive developments in most areas began accelerating prior to 2000. It is an observation that doesn't per se negate the positive results that the Millennium Goals may have achieved, but it does cast those effects in a different light.

Damage Done by Misguided Incentives

Nicole Rippin, a researcher with the German Development Institute, goes even further, saying that the goals have actually been harmful in some cases. An example she mentions pertains to one of the sub-targets: that of improving the lives of slum dwellers. To establish a criterion for success in this area, the share of a country's population living in slums was determined. According to Rippin, this led some countries to simply clear slums to meet the targets laid out by the Millennium Goals. The result was a statistical success but a disaster for those who lost their homes.

The measurement of global hunger provides a further indication that statistics do not always provide a reliable approximation of reality. In the 2015 Millennium Goals report, a diagram shows the number of people suffering from undernourishment over time. Since 1990, the trend has clearly been downward. Furthermore, the proportion of the global population suffering from hunger has plunged even more rapidly than the absolute number. The message is clear: We are on the path to eliminating hunger.

But in 2010, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN released a report that presented the global hunger situation in a starkly different light . Since 2006, the FAO has registered a steep rise in the number of undernourished people in the world and noted that in 2009, 1 billion people in the world were suffering from hunger.

How can these two accounts be reconciled? The reason for the discrepancy is that the FAO began measuring undernourishment differently in 2012. It isn't possible, after all, to simply count the number of people in a population who are suffering from hunger. Rather, a variety of figures pertaining to a given country are analyzed by way of complex statistical formulas.

In 2012, the FAO adopted a new mathematical formula to describe the probability that a resident of a particular country consumes a certain amount of food and takes in a certain number of calories. If the nutritional situation of a country improves, the new statistical method is better able to account for that improvement, the FAO says in an explanation of the methodology  it uses.

Slum in Phnom Penh (archive photo)

Slum in Phnom Penh (archive photo)


For Thomas Pogge, a professor of philosophy at Yale, the changes are nothing but "cosmetic efforts"  aimed at making the trends look as positive as possible. He also believes that the definition of undernourishment used is of little value because it is based on the amount of calories necessary for a sedentary lifestyle -- and not for the kind of hard work that many in the developing world must perform to get by.

When it comes to the monitoring of a different Millennium Goal -- that of reducing extreme poverty -- badly needed modifications to the way it is measured have been neglected for years. It is "a scandal to define a poverty level of $1.25, which is then left unmodified over the course of several years even though the global economy has grown massively during that time," writes Franz Josef Radermacher, a professor of informatics in Ulm and a globalization scholar.

Better Luck with New Targets?

Last fall, the Millennium Goals were replaced by Agenda 2030 , calling for 17 sustainable development goals and fully 169 sub-targets to be met within the next 15 years. They address almost all facets of our lives, including the pursuit of prosperity, species protection, the fight against climate change and the struggle against inequality.

A commission of experts proposed a total of 231 indicators to measure progress in each of the target areas. And these indicators too have been criticized. The group Open Knowledge Foundation Germany, for example, believes that the responsibility borne by rich countries isn't adequately accounted for in some indicators nor are all aspects of the sub-targets sufficiently covered.

Sven Kaumanns doesn't share the group's concerns. Kaumann works for Germany's Federal Statistical Office and is a member of the commission of experts assembled by the UN. The responsibilities borne by individual nations must be -- should it be politically desired -- codified in the goals, not in the indicators, he says. Furthermore, he adds, every sub-target is covered by at least one indicator and the indicators are also linked in myriad ways. He argues the monitoring regime must be viewed as a comprehensive system.

The expert commission didn't take the easy road when it came to defining the indicators. There have been several conferences since last year, called for the purpose of talking with a variety of interest groups. The final list of indicators  is to be approved this year by the UN General Assembly. The list will be reevaluated in 2020 and again in 2025.

Already, there is reason for hope: The controversial extreme-poverty definition of $1.25 per day could soon be revised to reflect reality. In the future, the share of country's population below the international poverty line is to be measured, and that baseline can change over time. Last October, for example, the World Bank raised the international poverty line to $1.90 per day. That is still extremely low, but it could mean that the situation of people like Ngong Theavy of Cambodia will be assessed a bit more realistically in the future.

The discussion of the successes or failures of the Millennium Goals shows that it is certainly possible to be optimistic -- as Melinda Gates is -- about the positive developments that have been seen worldwide. But that optimism should not lead one to blindly trust the data and the way in which it is presented.

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