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WHERE do the world’s poor live? The obvious answer: in poor countries. But in a recent series of articles Andy Sumner of Britain’s Institute of Development Studies showed that the obvious answer is wrong*. Four-fifths of those surviving on less than $2 a day, he found, live in middle-income countries with a gross national income per head of between $1,000 and $12,500, not poor ones. His finding reflects the fact that a long but inequitable period of economic growth has lifted many developing countries into middle-income status but left a minority of their populations mired in poverty. That matters because middle-income countries can afford to help their own poor. If most of the poverty problem lies within their borders, then foreign aid is less relevant to poverty reduction. A better way to help would be to make middle-income countries’ domestic policies more “pro-poor”.
Now Mr Sumner’s argument faces a challenge. According to Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution and Andrew Rogerson of Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, “by 2025 most absolute poverty will once again be concentrated in low-income countries.” They argue that as middle-income countries continue to make progress against poverty, its incidence there will fall. However, the number of poor people is growing in “fragile” states, which the authors define as countries which cannot meet their populations’ expectations or manage these through the political process (sounds like some European nations, too). The pattern that Mr Sumner describes, they say, is a passing phase.
The gap between the forecasts also reflects differences in assumptions. Some of these differences invite caution. The calculations by Messrs Kharas and Rogerson, using IMF data, seem to imply there will be hardly any poor people left in India and Indonesia in a few years, which seems unlikely. Using different assumptions, Mr Sumner forecasts that by 2030 the number of people in poverty could fall by anywhere between 600m and 1.6 billion, an enormous margin of error. “Any estimate of 2030 poverty, including ours, depends hugely on growth estimates for a few big countries…so I’d take all of them with oceans of salt,” warns one of Mr Sumner’s co-authors, Charles Kenny.