World Poverty Is a Disaster

Billions of people around the world live in extreme poverty. Nearly 1 out of every 10 people in the world lives below the international poverty line. That’s 701 million people struggling to survive on less than $2.15 a day.1

And nearly 2 billion people, or 26.2% of the world’s population, live on less than $3.20 a day.2

The extremely poor live without support, on the sidelines, watching economic growth and prosperity pass them by. They are shunned by the world economy. They live lives abundant in scarcity. Without enough food, access to clean water or proper sanitation. Without access to safe shelter, health care or education.

What Does It Mean to Live in Poverty?

Although the World Bank established the most widely held and understood definition of poverty, they have also described poverty as:3

  • Hunger.
  • Lack of shelter.
  • Being sick and not being able to see a doctor.
  • Not having access to school and not knowing how to read.
  • Not having a job.
  • Fear for the future.
  • Living one day at a time.
  • Losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water.
  • Powerlessness.
  • Lack of representation and freedom.

This understanding and description of poverty shows a broadening of the global definition of poverty, but it doesn't replace the World Bank’s $2.15 per day standard for extreme poverty used to measure the global poverty rate.

The World Bank has also developed indicators to assess non-income dimensions of poverty. These indicators include education, health, access to social services, vulnerability, social exclusion and access to social capital.4 Indicators such as these offer key ideas into what global poverty is and remind us that poverty is a complex issue with complex solutions depending on region, country, community and family.

The Environmental Inequality of Poverty in the World

Even the environment attacks poor people. When nature strikes, the world’s poor suffer the most. Poverty and the environment are closely connected, and those living below the poverty line are deeply impacted by deforestation, lack of safe water and natural disasters.

a man carries a mattress on his head while walking in waist deep water

Each year 26 million people fall into poverty due to natural disasters. Earthquakes, along with the tsunamis they spawned, killed more people than all other types of disasters combined, claiming nearly 750,000 lives between 1994 and 2013. Hurricanes have a devastating effect on poverty as they slow development and cause a drop in employment. In particular, hurricanes cause a decrease in development and a loss of GDP. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch caused 30 years of decreased development in Honduras and Nicaragua. Hurricane Ivan led to losses of more than 200% of Grenada’s GDP in 2004.5

Drought affected more than 1 billion people between 1994 and 2013, or 25% of the global population. More than 40% of droughts were in Africa, indicating that lower-income countries are still being overwhelmed by drought despite effective early warnings being in place.6

are children7

2 Million
after the 2010 earthquake8

218 Million
are affected by natural disasters every year6

Global Poverty and the Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), adopted in 2015 by the United Nations, is the most comprehensive and ambitious poverty reduction plan the world has embarked upon.

It expands the scope of the world community’s previous efforts to end extreme poverty and eradicates the burden poverty places on the world population — child malnutrition, gender inequality, unclean water, improper sanitation, poor health and well-being, and inequalities in education, economics, energy, justice and sustainability.

This burden, the burden of poverty, is literally carried on the heads and on the backs of the poor.

women carrying sacks of tea leaves on their backs

But the burden poverty places on society and individuals isn’t just economic or physical. Measuring poverty this way overlooks the other types of poverty oppressing the marginalized. Poverty causes the poor to suffer emotionally and spiritually as well.

That’s why the SDG isn’t just about ending poverty around the world. It’s about protecting the planet and ensuring all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

Building a sustainable future means finding ways to meet the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It requires a unified, collaborative and global approach that isn’t bound by cultures, conditions or continents.

Because a life of poverty means the poor carry a shade of poverty in their hearts and wear it etched on their faces. They become shells of unfulfilled potential and possibility.

an elderly Maasai man in traditional Maasai garb

Efforts to eliminate inequality and extreme poverty in the world have gradually lowered poverty rates in many low- and middle-income countries in South Asia and Latin America. But not everyone has been helped.

According to the World Data Lab, poverty in Africa is increasing in 16 countries. Additionally, 27 of the world’s 28 poorest countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, and each has a poverty rate of over 30%.9

Extreme poverty throughout the world was worsened in 2020 and 2021 by the COVID-19 pandemic and the stringent measures implemented to slow its spread. According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020, the global poverty rate rose to 8.8% in the first year of the pandemic from 8.2% in 2019. It was the first time for the rate of extreme poverty to increase since 1998.

In working with kids in poverty all around the world, we see poverty trying to steal joy, destroy dignity and put hope to death. We see poverty trying to enslave children and sustain helplessness for generations. And we see the shells of the people it conquers.

But poverty doesn’t always win.

Not even close.

Is Poverty Increasing or Decreasing Around the World?

The good news is 1.1 billion people have moved out of extreme poverty since 1990, and 15 countries have made rapid progress in extreme poverty. Several countries in Asia, including China, Moldova and Vietnam, effectively ended extreme poverty in 2015. Tanzania, one of seven sub-Saharan countries on the list, almost halved its extreme poverty in just over a decade!

Although the world has made huge progress on extreme poverty reduction, progress hasn’t been even. The majority of the 689 million people still living on less than $2.15 a day are in sub-Saharan Africa. Even among sub-Saharan high-performers such as Tanzania, rates of extreme poverty remain above 40%.

In addition, the pace of decline in the overall extreme poverty rate has slowed since 2013, and the world isn’t on track to hit the target of ending poverty by 2030. The pandemic has also dramatically slowed the reduction of poverty across the globe.10

are concentrated in just five countries

live in Africa

live in rural areas

Source: World Bank and The Brookings Institution

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1 Measuring Poverty. World Bank,

2 Nearly Half the World Lives on Less than $5.50 a day. World Bank,

3 Overview: Understanding, measuring and overcoming poverty. The World Bank,

4 World development report 2000-2001: Attacking poverty. The World Bank,

5 How Hurricanes Affect Poverty Around the World. The Borgen Project,

6 The human cost of natural disasters: a global perspective. Centre For Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters,

7 Worldwide, early 33 million children have been forcibly displaced at the end of 2019. UNICEF,

8 Ten facts about Haiti’s housing crisis. Amnesty International,

9 Patel, Nirav. “Figure of the Week: Understanding Poverty in Africa.” Brookings, Brookings, 21 Nov. 2018,

10 These countries have seen the biggest falls in extreme poverty. World Economic Forum,

11 Wydick, Bruce. “Cost-Effective Compassion: The 10 Most Popular Strategies for Helping the Poor.” Christianity Today. accessed 17 February 2012.

* In 2015, the World Bank began phasing out the term “developing world” in its publications and databases. The use of the developed countries and developing countries categories was “becoming less relevant” with the adoption of the SDG and its focus on targets for the entire world.