The fight to end extreme poverty has made incredible progress in recent decades. But now what remains are the most difficult places: the most vulnerable, the most fragile.
With the UN Sustainable Development Goals aiming to end extreme poverty by 2030, see how together we can achieve this goal … and what it will take to go this "last mile."
The UN’s newly minted Sustainable Development Goals have codified a commitment by world leaders to achieve one of the most monumental tasks in human history: the eradication of extreme poverty by 2030.
The case for eradication within 15 years has been made on the back of dramatic decreases over the last two decades, which have resulted in the halving of extreme poverty. The “last mile” to eliminate the remaining half of people living at $1.90 per day or less seems daunting but achievable to many. President Obama has declared this task within striking distance and an objective of U.S. foreign policy in no less than three State of the Union addresses.
While the goal of eradication by 2030 is the right one, the international community must foremost recognize that ending extreme poverty at the “last mile” is going to be profoundly more challenging and complex than the road already traveled. We cannot do more of the same, even at an accelerated pace, and expect the remaining bastions of extreme poverty to yield.
This is because extreme poverty is becoming more highly concentrated in the world’s most difficult places, the places with weak governance and public institutions, low skilled workforces, limited private sector and civil society engagement, and vulnerabilities to myriad threats—from conflict, corruption, and climate to urbanization, pandemics, and natural disasters. “Fragile states,” a catchall term for the most vulnerable and poorly governed contexts, are estimated to be the home of over 80% of the world’s extreme poor by 2030.
How can the international community help end the worst forms of poverty in 15 short years when it will be concentrated in fragile states—places that will require decades to rebuild their institutions, social contracts, and resilience to repeated shocks and stress?
World Vision has worked in the majority of fragile states for over three decades. We too are grappling with these issues. Our core concern is helping the world’s most vulnerable children who live in the margins of society. Our work in fragile states continues to grow through our development activities for health, education, food security, and child protection, as well as our humanitarian operations to provide life-saving and life-sustaining assistance to children, families, and communities in harm’s way.
Five years ago, World Vision developed an experimental global “business model” to better adapt and align our policy, relief, and development activities in fragile contexts. Today, we are deepening and expanding our strategy, programming, partnerships, and resources to improve upon our own model and elevate our efforts in fragile states.
The international community must contend with three realities if we are going to end extreme poverty in fragile states by 2030:
1. Overemphasis on formal institutions
Emerging theories of change to end extreme poverty—like USAID’s—rightly place “effective governance and accountable institutions” at the foundation of efforts to reform markets, modernize infrastructure, promote rule of law and justice, and establish social safety nets. All this driven by sustainable and inclusive economic growth. This foundation in fragile states is largely incapable of being established by 2030, much less far enough ahead of time to realize its effect on poverty eradication by then.
To make progress, donors and international partners need to explore innovative ways of strengthening informal institutions—those rooted in communities that are governed by their own non-formal rules, hierarchies, identities, and groups (e.g. savings groups, youth clubs, water user associations)—which could help positively manage shocks and stress like conflict, disasters, urbanization, and joblessness. From there, support must be given to make formal and informal institutions more mutually supportive so that the sum of available capacity, social mobilization, and ruling legitimacy is greater when they function together.
World Vision has seen the positive impacts when government and community institutions work together in the face of fragility. Our fragile states programs on polio eradication, drought resilience, and social accountability involve fostering trust, dialogue, accountability, and joined up service delivery approaches. These combine local community capacities to reach the hardest, remotest places in concert with governments who help provide support, convey legitimacy, and rally their own and external donor resources for support.
International partners must quickly pivot the focus in fragile states to strengthening and building bridges between formal and informal institutions if we hope to lay a sufficient foundation for eradicating extreme poverty.
2. Fragmented focus on resilience and conflict
The fragile states discourse has largely been influenced by aid professionals interested in peace and conflict issues. The World Bank’s fragility forum, held last week in Washington DC, featured conflict and violence in nearly every session of its three-day program. Resilience discourse, on the other hand, has typically been focused on building societal and state capacities to deal with a wider range of threats and fall-outs posed by food insecurity, climate issues, health, and disasters. If the international community is to effectively manage risks and vulnerabilities that could otherwise derail an extreme poverty eradication agenda, we must broaden our resilience approach.
We must also support domestic capacities (across formal and informal institutions) to identify and respond to multiple, overlapping, and layered risks, including conflict, which compound to determine the level of fragility in a given country or context. This must be done equally for the benefit of the majority of fragile states that are not experiencing conflict (or are dealing with it at sub-regional levels), but where extreme poverty looms large, like Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most international attention in the DRC is placed on the East, without considering other fragility factors contributing to the 87% extreme poverty rate across the country.
The “fragility to resilience” discourse presents a promising agenda to overcome fragility through resilience interventions, to make fragile states into resilient states. The African Development Bank’s fragility to resilience strategy is a step in the right direction. At the same time, the OECD seems to have taken a step back from its earlier thought leadership in this direction. For instance, its 2015 fragility indicators include resilience as but one indicator, along with violence, institutions, peace, and economic foundations. The OECD and broader international community should ensure a resilience lens exists over all efforts to manage shocks and stress that could thwart the ending of extreme poverty in fragile states.
3. Lack of attention on scaling
Innovation to end extreme poverty has become a major focus across donor aid agencies and partner governments. This focus is critically important, but innovation is only as good as its ability to go to scale. Management Systems International (MSI) and World Vision are co-developing a scaling-up framework in fragile states to help guide efforts to scale at different levels of risk and institutional capacity within local governments, the private sector, and informal institutions (e.g. faith-based providers of large-scale health and education in the absence of government and formal markets).
If we, the international community, can devise an approach to ending extreme poverty in fragile states that fosters resilience, builds scalable solutions, and is based on a foundation of formal and informal institutions working together, we stand a better chance of ending the worst forms of extreme poverty for nearly a billion of the world’s most vulnerable.
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 The World Bank, in 2015, revised the extreme poverty line from $1.25 a day to $1.90 a day. USAID defines extreme poverty as an inability to meet basic consumption needs on a sustainable basis.