Went to a talk on Tuesday by Thomas Pogge on how the World Bank and related governments track poverty, and how they are really being rather dishonest about the goals they are meeting, because they keep shifting them. Basically the Maths says that we’re on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal on poverty, in fact we’re ahead of schedule, but all this means it that the proportion of the world on less than $1.25 is going to halve. And wait—this is a figure that takes into account borders, so what it actually means is that we’re going to halve the number of people who, if they were living in the US, had less than $1.25 to live off. I don’t like in the US but that doesn’t seem like much of an achievement yet they’ll be celebrations.

The tricks pulled to make the target easier add up to reducing the required yearly drop from 3.58% per year in the early nineties, so just a 1.25% drop today. I won’t go into the details, but it was staggering just how much was going on. The result of doing what we’re doing now rather than the original goals means that the number dying from poverty per year after 2015 will be 6m higher. This is costing 6m lives per year extra.

Here’s another unpleasant fact: the number of people at the very bottom who are ‘chronically undernourished’ is actually going up (and not just with the population of the world), and topped 1bn for the first time in human history a few years ago. There’s something badly wrong with our ways of measuring poverty if this happens while we celebrate meeting a Millennium Development Goal.

The response is that we don’t want problems and targets so large that governments and their people will just give up. But, the entire problem of poverty is a deficit of cash equal to 0.17% of world income. If we raise this “dollar a day” figure to $2.50, and raise everyone above this level, it costs 1.13% of the world’s income (which is two thirds of the US military budget). The major countries involved in WWII spend 50% of their income on the war effort.

Towards the end he switched back to his moral philosopher’s hat and talked about how this goes on. It’s interesting that politicians are allowed to say “we’ll halve poverty” and be really excited about that, but consider: would it have been okay to say “we’ll halve the number of people in concentration camps”? Pogge’s conclusion was that the reason for all this is a conspiracy between the governments and the people of the western world. They give us stats, we say hooray and stop thinking about it, and nothing improves, because we just sit here and say “it’s the politicians fault and we can’t change that”.

These slides seem to be very similar to the ones he used.