Two Messages for the New World Bank Commission on Global Poverty

We are delighted to see that Nora Lustig, a CGD non-resident fellow and head of the Tulane University Commitment to Equity Institute, is one of eight distinguished economists appointed to the core group of a new Global Poverty Commission announced by World Bank Chief Economist Kaushik Basu. 

The Commission’s mandate is to report on the best ways to measure and monitor poverty and deprivation around the world.   

We have two messages for the Commission, one from each of us. First is a message from Charles that we hope Nora will convey to the Chair and other members of the Commission. Then is a message from Nancy on some points we hope Nora will keep in mind. 

Message #1 from Charles Kenny

In 2013 the World Bank set the target of bringing the number of extremely poor people to less than 3 percent of the world population by 2030.  In 2014, the UN Open Working Group set ending extreme poverty as Goal One, Target One for the Sustainable Development Goals.  In the same year, new purchasing power parity numbers came out suggesting the potential for fairly dramatic changes in poverty numbers and location.  Earlier this year, the Bank came out with a working paper suggesting one way to set a new ($1.88) poverty line based on new poverty surveys and the new purchasing power numbers.  And now we have the announcement of a World Bank panel that is meant to report in 2016 on what extreme poverty means. 

That panel is a recognition of the fact that there is no one agreed answer on how to measure extreme poverty — that it is a technically, philosophically and politically complex question.  Given that, you might have thought that setting the bar for what has become a global goal agreed at the UN might involve some input from stakeholders (say actual poor people, perhaps) beyond a hand-selected group blessed by the World Bank. Apparently not.

At the least, the World Bank should make public the deliberations of the planet-sized brains involved — because it must be said that the members of the Commission on Global Poverty are a laundry list of world-class thinkers on poverty.  Along with Nora Lustig, there’s Sen, Ravallion, Lanjouw, Kanbur, Foster, Dercon, Deaton, Bourguignon, Atkinson, and Alkire.  Debate and discussion between this group would be fascinating to see or read, and it could help inform a broader range of participants that aren’t part of the Commission’s membership but nonetheless have a lot at stake in its conclusions: SDG negotiators in New York, government officials from countries home to the World’s poorest, (even) poor people themselves.

I doubt many state secrets will be revealed in the discussion, nor would issues of personal privacy have much place in it, so it is hard to imagine a reason why all the material shouldn’t be published and meetings open to the public.  And if the Bank is going to keep to itself the choice of who gets to decide what poverty means, at a minimum the rest of the World ought to get to hear the thinking that leads to their conclusions.

Message #2 from Nancy Birdsall

I hope (and feel confident) that our friend Nora Lustig will take on board Charles’ point, but I also hope she will insist on two further points regarding the Commission’s work:  (1) It’s about inequality too (that is more clear in the full report of the Commission’s mandate than in the title and headlines). It is a good sign that the Commission will be chaired by Anthony Atkinson, well recognized as the world’s leading authority on the measurement of inequality. (2) Though it is well worth a single unchanging yardstick for the measurement of extreme poverty over time, an objective of the Commission, it is hard to escape the fact that “poverty” in the real world, for real people, is a relative concept. After all, poor people in the richest countries (using national poverty lines) are among the richest 15 percent of people in the world, as Branko Milanovic has shown. And in developing countries, many people above national poverty lines (usually between $2 and $4) are not part of an income-secure middle class but are “strugglers” leading anxious lives just one health, job or other shock away from a more extreme version of “poverty”. 

The Commission will complete its work by April 2016. At CGD we hope for informal briefings from Nora on the discussions and priorities of this distinguished group.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.