Researchers fighting poverty see 2016 as one of the best years on record

Jan. 1, 2017

Whatever you may have thought of last year, “…if 2016 continues the global trends of previous years, it may turn out to have been one of the best years for humanity as a whole,” according to Annie Duflo and Jeffrey Mosenkis of the nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action.

In The Washington Post, they write, “Between 1990 and 2013 (the last year for which there is good data), the number of people living in extreme poverty dropped by more than half, from 1.85 billion to 770 million. As the University of Oxford’s Max Roser recently put it, the top headline every day for the past two decades should have been: ‘Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 130,000 since yesterday.’”

They add that child mortality has dropped by nearly half over the same period as literacy, vaccination rates, and the number of people living in democracy have all increased.

Wireless technology has played a role as access to mobile money has helped lift many people out of poverty. They cite the M-Pesa mobile money system introduced in Kenya in 2007, which lets people essentially use their mobile phones as bank branches. They cite research noting that access to the M-Pesa system enables people to better weather short-term economic shocks and improve financial resilience, although long-term effects remain largely unknown. However, the research shows that 185,000 women in areas with access to M-Pesa switched from subsistence farming to business or retail sales occupations.

In a 2015 article in Forbes, Daniel Runde elaborated on M-Pesa, writing, “…in 2013, a staggering 43% of Kenya’s GDP flowed through M-Pesa, with over 237 million person-to-person transactions. M-Pesa is nearly ubiquitous in the daily lives of Kenyans due to a range of services that include money deposit and withdrawal, remittance delivery, bill payment, and microcredit provision.”

Mobile phones can assist through simple text messages, too, helping people save, stay healthy, and otherwise and improve their lives. Duflo and Mosenkis cite a study in Ghana showing that text message reminders encourage patients to finish all of their antimalarial drugs, for example. And a study in Kenya showed that a text-message system helped teachers reduce student dropout rates by 50%

Innovative healthcare delivery can also improve outcomes. “Despite the recent drops in child mortality, an estimated 5.9 million children younger than 5 died in 2015, often due to conditions that would be easily treatable elsewhere, such as diarrhea,” Duflo and Mosenkis write. “The nongovernmental organizations Living Goods and BRAC Uganda have been training women in Uganda to make a living by going door-to-door selling over-the-counter medications and health products. They function as franchisees in an ‘Avon lady’-style business. But these small-business owners also perform basic health checks for children to look for symptoms that warrant getting the child to a clinic.” They cite a study showing that such a program cut child mortality by 27%

But one key method of fighting poverty is decidedly low tech: “…give the poor cash,” they write. Nineteen studies across three continents show that when poor people are given money, they spend it productively—sending their children to school, fixing a roof, or investing in a business.

Duflo and Mosenkis conclude that poverty research is not “…a continuous parade of celebratory findings. Many programs don’t work, but knowing what does work allows governments, investors, and aid organizations to move toward the more effective programs. Here’s to a 2017 that’s even better for humanity than 2016.”

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