As global leaders gather at the World Economic Forum to discuss some of the world’s most pressing issues, including inequality and poverty, many will share data to illustrate a phenomenon. However, countries that focus on creating prosperity and not just merely eradicating poverty react differently to data on poverty.
Alleviating poverty is not the same as creating prosperity
Hard as it may be to believe, decades ago Singapore was very impoverished, and one of the main initiatives of the government was to educate its citizens. But when Dr. Goh Keng Swee, one of Singapore’s ministers, would see hundreds of children streaming out of school at the end of the day, instead of being happy, he was heartbroken. He and the Singaporean government understood that simply attending school wasn’t enough. What would the students do after they graduated? How would the economy create and sustain jobs for all these newly educated children? Those were the questions that Dr. Keng Swee was asking.
Focusing on creating prosperity – in contrast to focusing on alleviating poverty – compelled Dr. Keng Swee and the government to ask entirely different questions, pursue different activities and emphasize different metrics. Instead of mostly focusing on the data, they focused on the deeper underlying phenomena. And so, instead of primarily building schools, Singapore prioritized investments and innovation and attracted companies that created jobs. This decision increased the need for education.
As a result, Singapore has become one of the richest nations in the world with a GDP per capita of approximately $57,714. And today, not only do approximately 99% of people attend secondary school, but more than half go on to get a post-secondary school diploma. What would have happened if – as many nations do today – Singapore focused primarily on the data of how many children were educated? It might not be as successful today. The phenomena – the realities on the ground – drive the data.
With trillions of dollars spent in official development assistance over the past several decades, and hundreds of billions spent annually, we believe that if more nations focused on realities underlying the data, we would not only eradicate poverty in the next couple of decades, but we set nations on a path to creating long-term economic prosperity.
What the data hides
Over the past three decades, more than 1 billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty. The rate of global poverty is down from 37% in 1990 to approximately 10% today. But a vast majority of the people who have escaped poverty are from China (approximately 800 million people) and to a lesser extent, India (approximately 200 million).
Poverty in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa is actually on the rise, with no signs of slowing down. In addition, nearly half the world’s population – 3.4 billion people – live on less than $5.50 a day and struggle to meet their basic needs. The problem is that this data can be deceptive. We are awash in data, and we do need this information. But data, metrics and statistics are simply representations of particular phenomena and are not the phenomena themselves.
Consider another example. The data shows that primary and secondary school enrollment rates are now almost on par with rates in high-income countries. That’s a good thing. However, what the data doesn’t illustrate as clearly is that the quality of education couldn’t be more different. In low- and middle-income countries, for instance, more than half the students in school (over 617 million) are not achieving minimum proficiency levels, according to a United Nations study. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number is about 90%. In addition, international assessments of literacy and numeracy show that the average student in a low-income country performs worse than 95% of the students in high-income countries. What this ultimately means is that students are attending school, but are not learning. This is important because programs, laws and investments can cause the statistics to nominally improve, even when reality is going in a different direction.