Spotlight Series: SDG 1 – No Poverty


The first SDG sets itself a task of the absolute: No Poverty. Arguably the most ambitious goal, it pledges to fully eradicate poverty in all its forms everywhere on the globe.

This goal has been described as walking the last mile, after the MDG’s already triggered the most successful and wide-reaching initiatives against world poverty: Extreme poverty around the world was cut by more than half between 1990 and 2015 – from 1.9 billion to 836 million. These are huge steps, and yet, a lot still remains to be done before extreme poverty is totally eradicated.

Progress has also been made very unevenly: while India’s and China’s rapid economic growth managed to lift large quantities of people out of extreme poverty, progress was more stifled in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, which still account for 80% of the world’s poorest.

Inequalities in the fight against extreme poverties are also an issue of gender: unequal access to work, education and property still mean that women are far more likely to be poor than men.

The first SDG sets out a plan to target those most vulnerable, give support to communities and provide the services and support necessary to eradicate extreme poverty worldwide by 2030. This would mean that by this point, nobody has to live off less than $1.25 a day.

This is also already one major difficulty. Reducing poverty seems straightforward, defining poverty however, is very difficult. Extreme, or absolute, poverty, as used as an indicator by the UN is far more complex than a plain number:

In the 1990, the poverty line was set at one dollar exactly. $1.25 then, is an updated value, taking into account things such as inflation. However, it can be argued that already the initial baseline of $1 was an arbitrary amount. Also, in 2015, the World Bank updated their poverty line to $1.90 to take into account the differing circumstances in various countries. But still, any such appropriation will remain very inaccurate, as the standards of living and circumstances varyhighly from country to country and on regional levels. For example, the actual extreme poverty line in 2010 in the United States was estimated at $15.15, while in China in the same year it was set at $0.55 these are based on the differences in purchasing power parity (PPP).[1]

Furthermore, these models based on monetary poverty fail to account for non-monetary economies, such as gift and barter economies, redistribution and reciprocity, as well as subsistence farming. In Swaziland for example, three economic structures exist alongside and intertwined with each other: a currency-based market exchange, redistribution, whereby all land belongs to the king and is distributed to the people according to their needs by regional chiefs and reciprocity, whereby neighbours and communities share produce, tools and property without a debt or exchange value.[2] Assessing poverty simply on a “dollar/day” method is in these cases not particularly useful.

The UN are of course aware, that defining poverty is not that straightforward. They state: “Its manifestations include hunger and malnutrition, limited access to education and other basic services, social discrimination and exclusion as well as the lack of participation in decision-making. Economic growth must be inclusive to provide sustainable jobs and promote equality.”[3] Interestingly, the definitions of poverty have changed over time and now seem to incorporate wider issues than just monetary aspects: political participation, social inclusion and cultural and educational opportunity for example are now often important factors when discussing poverty. As such, the term “poverty” itself reflects shifts in focus as well as in a wider expression of values. This then arguably also enables more holistic and creative approaches to fighting poverty, realising that for example, educational initiatives, conflict reduction and other approaches are perhaps a better way of targeting the root of the problem.[4]

Graph of worldwide poverty development by country, 1980-2013.[5]

Leaving aside these discussions of interpretation, pragmatically speaking, there has been a lot of progress. Numbers of those affected by absolute poverty are declining worldwide, giving rise to hopes that this ambitious goal might actually be achieved in the future.[6]


This is part 2/18 of a series on the Sustainable Development Goals.




[2] G. Bailey and J. Peoples, Essentials of Cultural Anthropology (Cengage Learning, 2013).


[4] E. Davis and M. Sanchez-Martinez, “A review of the economic theories of poverty”, Discussion Paper 435 (National Institute of Economic and Social Research, 2014).



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