Will growth be enough to end poverty? New Projections of the UN Sustainable Development Goals

October 17, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Arief Anshory Yusuf, Zuzy Anna, Ahmad Komarulzaman and Andy Sumner

Today, October 17th is the UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (you already knew that, right?). In new analysis for UNU-WIDER, we assess progress towards the global poverty-related SDGs, specifically monetary poverty, undernutrition, child and maternal mortality, and access to clean water and basic sanitation. Our analysis then looks forward, making projections on the state of global progress over the coming years, up to the 2030 deadline for meeting the SDGs.

Tl;dr: it’s not looking good. Our findings show that economic growth alone will not be enough to end global poverty and meet the global poverty-related SDGs, which will be missed by a considerable distance. That’s just numbers – we need to remember what they mean in terms that are all too human: millions of lives blighted unnecessarily by sickness, poverty, and death.

These basic goals will not be achieved by 2030 without radical changes in policies to address national and global inequalities. Stronger emphasis is needed on inclusive growth and productive capacities (a.k.a. SDG 8) alongside social policy. 

The lost decade returns?

In the 1980s, many developing countries experienced stagnant or declining progress on many indicators of standards of living, earning the decade the infamous ‘lost decade’ label. Our sobering new projections indicate we may face another lost decade in the 2020s unless urgent action is taken.

We make new projections across a set of poverty-related SDGs with a consistent methodology. We chose 7 indicators based on their strong historic correlation to GDP per capita (which we test) and the existence of sufficient country-level data to make projections. This enables credible projections using the growth forecasts.

Why now?

This year is halfway to the 2030 deadline, from 2015 when the SDGs were agreed. Further, our estimates use economic growth forecasts that take into account recent global shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the inflation shock triggered by the Ukraine war.

What do we find? Widespread failure to meet the set of poverty-related SDGs.

Here are the headline findings for countries of the Global South:

  • over 600 million people will remain in extreme poverty in 2030.
  • the number of undernourished people will be higher in 2030 than in 2015, when the SDGs were agreed, reaching 665 million in 2030. More than 1 in 5 children will be stunted in 2030.
  • there will be an increase in the number of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and low-income countries (LICs), though most of world’s undernourished people will continue to be in middle-income countries.
  • 1 in 10 of the population of developing countries will still lack access to clean water; 1 in 3 people in SSA and in LICs
  • More than 1 in 5 people in developing countries will still lack basic sanitation, with 2/3 of people in SSA and in LICs lacking access to basic sanitation

In short, the findings are sobering. A potential ‘new lost decade’. The major constraint on growth and progress towards the SDGs will be debt-servicing, which will limit social and productive spending in the Global South between now and 2030.

In fact, that is the root cause of this potentially catastrophic failure: the post-pandemic debt overhang and rising interest rates are triggering a new era of austerity across much of the Global South to ensure that debt repayments are met. This in turn is hampering governments’ abilities to raise incomes and spend what is need on the SDGs (and could delay essential climate adaptation investments).

What should be done?

Urgent policy action is required. There is an urgent need for redistributive measures.

To change course, we need urgent policy action on two fronts:

First, a stronger focus is needed on inclusive growth and productive capacities. Specifically, new international financing needs to be made available through debt relief or other forms of finance to expand fiscal space across countries of the Global South to ensure that a stronger focus on SDG 8 can happen. This financing should ensure social and productive spending expands, rather than contracts.

Second, that focus should entail redistribution alongside growth, through policies that build productive capacities, introduce, or expand income transfers to meet the extreme poverty target, and ensure sufficient public investment to meet the health, water, and sanitation SDGs.

In short, today’s trajectory demands a forceful, seismic shift towards redistribution, nationally and globally.

It also requires new finance to flow to the Global South. Facing lost decades past and present, radical policy changes now provide the only hope of ending global poverty.

This is the pathway to have any hope of achieving the poverty-related SDGs.

Figure 1. Projections of poverty-related SDGs, 2015-2030

Source: Authors’ estimates.

October 17, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Sobering but not surprising. One more factor that means targeted growth does not match its poverty alleviation targets, is that economic benefits do not reach the poor either at all or sufficiently to end vulnerability. In some cases, poverty ends up worse then before. The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) gives a better guide generally but you also need to examine specific country factors. Cambodia is a case in point. Economic growth has on the one hand created a substantial ultra-wealthy elite, while many poor people are worse off than ever. This reality distorts the overall picture. One topical issue is that of the “micro-finance” programmes much favoured by major development and banking institutions. Too many families have ended up unable to pay off the loans They have lost not only land and property due to ownership titles having been given as collateral, but also traditional inter-generational livelihoods.

  2. I think the focus should also be on reducing multi-dimensional poverty and deprivation as key components of the strategy to end poverty. I also think that social capital can play a role in poverty reduction as it promotes the idea of bonding between individuals and neighbours, bridging with other communities where success in reduction is noticeable, and greater meaningful and genuine linkages between resource agencies and communities in promoting community development and gender equity.

Leave a Reply