Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

Do you think the number of poor people in the world has gone up or down in the past 25 years?

This question is an excellent conversation starter because practically everybody answers it incorrectly. Primed by depressing and shocking headlines, most people assume that poverty has increased. Some people say it has held steady. Almost none are aware that in fact, more than a billion people have overcome poverty just since the turn of the millennium.

This huge drop in the number of people living on less than $1.90 per day(Dh6.97) is among the most underappreciated and most important developments of our generation.

But it’s not guaranteed to continue. In fact, progress against poverty is in jeopardy. According to current projections, the number of people in extreme poverty will stagnate at over 500 million. In the worst-case scenario, it could even start going back up.

Why has the world arrived at this crossroads? The answer is the unfortunate intersection of two demographic trends.

First, as extreme poverty disappears from many places, including China and India and, increasingly, many countries in Africa, it gets more and more concentrated in the most challenging places in the world. Poverty is especially stubborn in a group of about a dozen countries in sub-Saharan Africa marked by violent conflict, severe climate change, weak governance and broken health and education systems. More and more, extreme poverty will be a feature of life only where people’s opportunities to overcome it are brutally limited.

Second, these dozen countries are growing faster than every other place in the world. In the United States, women have an average of two children. In Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, they have an average of seven. Births aren’t randomly distributed geographically. Rather, they are concentrated in the places where poverty is concentrated. Based on current trends, a growing proportion of babies will be born in places where adults have to devote most of their resources to survival, leaving very little to invest in their families, their communities and their countries.

This dual phenomenon of persistent poverty in fast-growing places explains why, by 2050, more than 40 per cent of the extremely poor people on the planet are projected to live in just two countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria.

The good thing about projections, though, is that they are based on the status quo. We don’t believe in the status quo. We believe that people, when given tools and opportunity, can defy the odds. This is especially true of young people, because they are determined to lead a better life than their parents have and eager to follow new ideas and new technologies where they lead. What will it take to help all these young people change the future of their countries? We can learn from what has worked in the past: investments in people, especially their health and education, and in innovation.

In general, leaders prefer to spend money on things like roads, ports and bridges, because the impact is immediate. When they strengthen health and school systems, the results, from an economic point of view, come decades later. The effect of investments in science and technology is even more delayed.

Investment in the future

But these investments pay off. In 1990, the typical Chinese young person received an eighth-grade education. Now, as a result of government investments in the school system, he or she receives some college education. In 1990, one in three Chinese children were chronically malnourished. Now, thanks to increased agricultural productivity and improved health care, it’s fewer than one in 10.

In India, innovation is leading to remarkable change. The 1960s best seller The Population Bomb predicted that “famine and food riots” would “sweep” across the country. What actually swept across India were new agricultural techniques and technologies, and now Indian farmers get almost four times the amount of wheat from the same piece of land as they got 50 years ago.

The challenge now is for today’s poorest, fastest-growing countries to make the same kinds of investments. If they can’t, if their futures resemble their recent pasts, then the world will get poorer. But if they can, we could see extreme poverty disappear from the earth.

Even though the projections we’re talking about are in the distant future, the time to act is now. Investing in health and education is especially urgent at this precise time in the history of sub-Saharan Africa because of the region’s youth boom. The children who can transform the continent have already been — or are about to be — born. It will be up to them to lead the innovation their societies need: to transform subsistence farms into profitable small businesses, to provide a bank account for every adult on their mobile phones, to eradicate malaria and other neglected diseases.

Our foundation’s mission is to help all people lead a healthy, productive life. In some ways it is going to be even more difficult to deliver on that promise in the future than it was in the past. Fortunately, recent history shows that progress is possible, even under what experts used to consider impossible circumstances. It also provides a very specific blueprint for how we can work together to create it.

— New York Times News Service

Bill Gates and Melinda Gates are the founders of the Gates Foundation, which recently issued a report on progress and youth demographics in sub-Saharan Africa.