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Ending poverty and the SDGs
The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) help us navigate towards a world of universal human flourishing.
Extreme poverty is defined as living on less than $2.15/day, and it affects over 700 million people. While extreme poverty has been declining for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic set us back significantly, and we need to redouble our efforts to get there by 2030.
Ending poverty is extremely important for its own sake. But it’s closely related to the remaining goals. If we end poverty everywhere, we get a lot closer to achieving all the SDGs.
This post discusses a few of those inter-goal relationships in more detail.
Ending poverty advances food security, health and wellbeing, and education
SDGs 2-4 are zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, and quality education, and they’re essential for human flourishing. According to research by GiveDirectly, each is something that people in poverty choose to buy for themselves when given the chance.
GiveDirectly is an NGO that gives cash to people in poverty, no strings attached. It’s a dead simple anti-poverty strategy, so simple that many assume it can’t work. But when researchers study its impacts, they find that recipients typically spend their money on “food, medical and education expenses, durables, home improvement, and social events,” as well as “livestock, furniture, and iron roofs.”
In other words, less hunger, good health, and quality education.
Now all we need to do is scale this up to the world.
Ending poverty reduces gender and economic inequality
For SDG 10, the connection is clear: raising the floor for people’s incomes reduces the gap between rich and poor. Put simply, if you make a poor person richer and leave a rich person’s income the same, you’ve reduced the economic distance between them.
But the same is true for SDG #5, gender equality.
The UN argues that women’s economic empowerment “sets a direct path towards gender equality.” Lifting all people out of poverty especially helps women because it increases opportunities for independence and autonomy. For example, researchers find that women’s economic empowerment is “associated with a significant reduction in the pooled measure of emotional, sexual, and physical IPV” (intimate partner violence). As Lakshmi Puri, former Assistant Secretary-General & Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, puts it:
The trinity of women and girls’ economic empowerment, autonomy and rights must be linked, horizontally and vertically, to the realization of SDG 5….Sustainably and irreversibly eradicating poverty requires all poverty reduction and development strategies, policies and measures to make SDG 5 their lodestar and to cultivate…[a] beneficiary symbiosis between SDG1 and 5.
Ending poverty can help the environment too
Many of the SDGs emphasize environmental sustainability.
- SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy
- SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
- SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
- SDG 13: Climate Action
- SDG 14 Life Below Water
- SDG 15: Life On Land
To understand the relationship between SDG 1 and these goals, we need some context about the role of economic growth.
Economic growth, poverty reduction, and the environment
As prominent development economists Jagdish N. Bhagwati and Arvind Panagriya argue, the “only strategy that will help the poor to any significant degree” is growth. Conversely, just giving people cash, the straightforward anti-poverty tactic that Glo facilitates by supporting GiveDirectly, creates a large, local multiplier effect. That means that for every $1 given away, $2.50 of demand is created. In short, economic growth. That evidence comes from Kenya; in Brazil, researchers also find a GDP multiplier effect from emergency cash transfers.
The problem is that as poor countries and regions develop, they tend to industrialize, and therefore to pollute more. That’s why we observe a strong relationship between GDP and carbon emissions across countries. This makes economic growth controversial. Some critics argue that our “obsession with growth” is unsustainable and we need to prioritize new metrics. But the fact remains that the most well-validated strategies either depend on or induce growth, and historically, that has meant more pollution. We are already beginning to see a version of this with increased fossil fuel usage across much of Africa. So at first glance, there is a potential conflict between SDG #1 and SDGs 7 and 11-15.
We take this concern seriously. But here too, we see cause for hope that ending poverty will help advance all the SDGs.
Pairing poverty reduction and environmental protections through green technology
First, some good news. While researchers find that “lower-middle-income countries” experience “the greatest increase in human footprint”, this relationship is “actually reversed in the wealthiest nations.” In fact, in many countries, economies have grown substantially in the past 30 years while carbon emissions have fallen in both per capita and absolute terms.
So we know that it’s possible to become wealthier in environmentally sustainable ways. The key challenge of sustainable development is enabling poorer countries to make the same leap.
The answer here is that people living in poverty have the opportunity to “leapfrog” traditional economic development and jump right to sustainable technology. To understand this, think about how people in Africa skipped having landline telephones and bought cell phones instead. Similarly, we see that many people in Lebanon are installing solar panels to ensure reliable access to electricity. Likewise, we see electric cars taking off in India, with the country committed to selling only electric cars by 2030.
This reflects a broader commitment to clean energy worldwide.
Making this the norm across the world is obviously going to be challenging. That’s where SDG #17, Partnership, comes in. Working to make economic progress environmentally sustainable will require cooperation from many stakeholders, including governments, NGOs, and renewable tech companies. Glo is proud to be contributing to this by building on Polygon and Ethereum, which stand out for their commitment to sustainability.
Finally, and most speculatively, extreme poverty is (in addition to everything else) a huge drain on human capital. The technology that solves global warming might not have been invented yet; it might not have been dreamed of yet. The more people we can get out of poverty and into good schools and good jobs, the more brainpower we’ll be able to throw at the problem.
Ideas are an unlimited natural resource. Let’s tap as much of it as we can.
Sustainable development and zero extreme poverty are possible in our lifetimes
Overall, we believe that human flourishing, social progress, and environmental stewardship can all go hand-in-hand with the eradication of poverty. But it’s not going to happen on its own. It will require a shared sense of purpose, cooperation, and a ton of hard work.
We’re eager to get started.
Thanks to Namita Desai for helpful comments on an early draft.
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