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The New Bottom Billion: Where Are the World’s Poor?

  • Joe DeCapua

Most of the world’s poor are not in poor countries. That’s the finding of new research from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex. It could lead to a re-thinking of donor aid and ways of achieving the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs.

The new policy briefing by the IDS is called: The New Bottom Billion and the MDGs – A Plan of Action. It’s written by Andy Sumner, research fellow in vulnerability and poverty reduction.

“We wanted to see how poverty had changed over the last 20 years. And what we found was increasingly the world’s poor are living in middle income countries. What the World Bank calls middle income countries. That’s countries of more than a thousand dollars per person (per year). And there are about 960 million poor people out of a total of 1.3 billion or so who live in middle income countries. There’s a bit difference in the popular notion of the bottom billion living in the world’s poorest countries,” he says.

Important because…

“Poverty is increasingly not necessarily only about poor countries. It’s actually about poor people living in countries that aren’t so poor. And that sort of raises all sorts of questions,” he says.

Among the countries are India, China, Nigeria, Pakistan and Indonesia.

“Those countries you named there account for a very significant proportion of the world’s poor.”

Andy Sumner, Institute of Development Studies

Andy Sumner, Institute of Development Studies

As for the remaining number of the world’s poor, Sumner says, “I think it’s important to emphasize that although three-quarters of the world’s poor now live in middle income countries, we shouldn’t forget that there’s still a quarter of the world’s poor in low income countries, largely in Africa. In those countries, it really is still questions about resources. It’s about capacities of governments to deliver those kind of things. So we shouldn’t forget that quarter’s still important.


The Millennium Development Goals, which address such issues as poverty, health and education, have a due date of 2015. Sumner says knowing the economic health of the countries where poor people live could affect how the MDGs are reached.

“Shouldn’t we be tracking and looking and thinking much more about the poorest groups and how the MDGs are doing in those groups? Otherwise, we might end up with a situation in 2015 where the MDGs have helped the near poor, not the poorest people,” he says.

And it may be time for a different approach to aid, he says, for middle income countries.

“Thinking about climate change. Thinking about migration and trade policy. Maybe it’s not about money anymore in the middle income countries. And that’d be quite revolutionary for aid, I think.” he says.

A new look may also be needed for so-called fragile states.

Sumner says, “Our research suggests perhaps only one in four or maybe one in five poor people live in fragile states. Now that doesn’t mean those countries aren’t important, and they need support. It just questions whether the emphasis on fragile states perhaps has been overdone.”

The Institute of Development Studies research fellow says it’s important to remember that poor people haven’t moved. It’s just the countries they live in have gotten better off.

“Over the last three to five years, the countries with very large populations, like Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Indonesia – once they move or transition to middle income status, that of course pushes a larger proportion of the world’s poor into the middle income country group,” he says.

The World Bank has estimated that even if the Millennium Development Goals are met, there’ll still be about one billion poor people in the world in 2015.