Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Losing Faith In Democracy: A Warning From Latin America (April 26, 2004)
"The publication last week of an alarming report ... from Latin America will only confirm for many that the euphoria of the early 1990s over the spread of democracy is now history."

Oil-For-Food: Where Was the Security Council? (April 19, 2004)
"Some U.N. officials may have been complicit in Saddam Hussein's illegal profiteering from the 'oil-for-food' program that sustained Iraqi civilians from 1997 until last November."

Corruption's Threat to Democracy (April 12, 2004)
"In March Transparency International released a list of ten top corrupt leaders of the last quarter century. Except for Ukraine and Yugoslavia, all were in Africa, Asia and Latin America."

The UN's Real Blunder in Iraq (April 7, 2004)
"It has been demonstrated that irresponsibility, a lack of integrity, and a careless inattention to duty can, tragically, carry a deadly price."

Sri Lanka on the Edge Again (March 29, 2004)
"This relatively small island nation will hold an election Friday that many Sri Lankans believe will decide whether ethnic conflict is really over or has only paused before plunging into a disastrous new phase."

Banker Plans To Put UN Show on the Road (March 22, 2004)
"'When the truck comes into a city, I want it to blow people away.' A senior vice president at Morgan Stanley has designed a rolling exhibition—a sort of U.N.-mobile—that he hopes to put on the road before the end of the year."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | May 3, 2004
from U. N. Wire Reducing Poverty Takes More Than Just Money

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo will long be remembered because it took a fundamental problem—too many births in places that cannot sustain that many people—and rescued it from the straitjacket of numbers.

The delegates at Cairo said: Take the job of population reduction away from government controllers wielding quotas and give it to women. In the right family environment and with the freedom to choose, women will—and have proved they can—bring fertility down.

The persistent anguish of poverty needs a new look too. While it may be understandable that per capita or family income is a necessary tool for measuring the economic health of people, reliance on these numbers often leads to oversimplified conclusions. If the world can, for example, significantly reduce the number of people living on less than $1 or $2 a day, poverty is being eliminated. But is it? And, without taking many other factors into account, how long can any such gains last?

The question of how to tackle poverty worldwide is getting a lot of discussion because of the Millennium Development Goals. These are the eight targets the United Nations—now 191 member countries—set for itself in 2000. First on the list is cutting in half by 2015 the number of people who in 1990 were living on less than $1 a day, and at the same time reducing by one-half the number of people suffering from hunger.

This worthy goal is becoming something of a numbers game among nations racing (or not) to meet the deadline. Poverty, however, has so many other facets beyond what it takes to live from day to day. The World Bank warned in late April that unless all countries and international financial institutions look at the big picture, people in developing countries don't stand a chance of significant gains.

The 1995 U.N. conference in Copenhagen known as the Social Summit tried to grapple with this reality, but in the end got bogged down in another set of numbers: how much aid the richer countries should provide to poorer countries, and what percentage of that should be spent on what priorities by recipient nations.

Experts who like to measure things but are nonetheless wary of numbers offer some cautions. Numbers mean different things to different nations, starting with wildly varying definitions of a poverty line. Living below the poverty line in Bangladesh is a lot different from living below that poverty line in New York City, says Joseph Chamie, director of the U.N. Population Division. This is why, in fact, the World Bank's poverty indicators in its annual world development reports balance national poverty lines against the shorthand of $1 and $2 a day as international poverty lines.

Even then, there is the problem of scale, which raises the question of what a significant reduction really means to the world at large. Compare, for example, Ethiopia and India against the backdrop of the total world population. According to World Bank figures based on 1999-2000 information (not the 1990 baseline used by the Millennium Development Goals), 98.4 percent of the people in Ethiopia were living on less than $2 a day; in India the percentage was 79.9. But Ethiopia had a total population of about 64 million, while India's was more than 1 billion. Suppose against all odds both were able to halve those figures? That would mean 31 million people would be left living on less than $2 a day in Ethiopia. In India, there would still be nearly 400 million people in that category. For the health and viability of the world and its resources, the number of nations meeting any universal target could be a lot less important than the total number of people, not countries, affected.

But that's all numbers again. What about the less easy to measure factors that may increasingly contribute to a life of deprivation or threaten to undercut short-term gains? Even meeting one or more of the Millennium Development Goals does not mean the job is done and there will be no backsliding.

Long-term realities can challenge more rosy short-term gains and cannot be ignored, says Lester R. Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington (and the founder of Worldwatch Institute before that).

"Agricultural production could go up in a rural community because they're overpumping the aquifers," Brown said in an interview. "So that would look good today, but tomorrow when the aquifers are depleted and food production plummets, then it's another story. That's sort of a metaphor for a lot of the development-environment relationships, because some advances are being achieved in some places today at the expense of tomorrow, and that doesn't show up in those numerical things."

Population growth cannot be set aside as we focus on daily income or wherewithal, said Brown, whose most recent book is Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. "There's the question of the sheer quantity of various resources, like cultivatable land and water resources and so forth, and population growth really does eat away at that. You could imagine a situation where the income data were going up, but the amount of water that people have for bathing, for cooking, whatever, could be going down." Land in some of the poorest countries gets much scarcer as it is divided among succeeding generations of large families, he added.

The goal of halving hunger by 2015 is also undercut by such developments, said Brown, who is beginning work on his next book, which he plans to title Outgrowing the Earth. "It will be focused on food because that's where I think it's becoming most evident and where serious problems are going to first emerge," he said. "Unless we have just one bumper crop of grain around the world this year—one that's well above the trend—I think world food prices will be jumping by this fall."

A doubling of food prices in the near future, he said "would impoverish more people in a shorter term than any event in history."

At the U.N. Population Division, Chamie said that economists are often "unwilling to deal with noneconomic factors that in many ways are extremely important to reducing poverty." He said that demographers and social scientists look at cultural and religious practices and the functioning of societies as often better indicators of development than the sheer division of wealth or the measurement of expendable income.

U.N. agencies are aware of these imponderables and deficits in the human and material environment that are often good guides to whether there will be more or less poverty in a given society. Apart from environmental resources, there are levels of health and education to consider, given their impact on future generations.

In the last week or two, several reports have been published on the relevance of educating girls, or failing to. At the Council on Foreign Relations, a new study that doubles as a guide for policy-makers found evidence that literacy among girls and women has immediate economic impact through smaller families, more emphasis on schooling and other results.

"A single year of primary education correlates with a 10-20 percent increase in women's wages later in life," the study found. It also reported that girls' education reduces fertility, taking pressure off family life and natural resources.

UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy launched a campaign last week to get more girls in school in poor regions, especially South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. "As long as millions of girls are denied a basic education, we stand little chance of improving the lives of the world's poorest people," she said in a statement.

This is not to say that the Millennium Development Goals overlook these issues. After the No. 1 goal of halving extreme poverty and hunger, the remaining targets include universal primary education, gender equality, lower child mortality and better maternal health, combating AIDS and other diseases, environmental stability and global partnerships in trade and investment.

It is rather just to suggest that maybe countries need to start somewhere other than the top of the list if the first target is ever to be met.

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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.