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Poverty rates are plummeting, unless you ask an American – they think they’re way up

Members of ONE on the streets of Seattle, taking names and fighting poverty

How much does the average person from the world’s wealthiest countries know about global poverty?

Survey says: not much.

poverty-surveyMore than 90 percent of Americans think that the number of people living in extreme poverty remained the same or got worse in the past 20 years. Just about everywhere, the survey found very few people who knew that the number of people living in extreme poverty was halved in the past 20 years.

Motivaction International, a Dutch company, surveyed more than 26,000 people from 24 countries and found a massive knowledge gap.

Those who reported that the world is getting better come from the countries where change is apparent – India, China and Indonesia. People on the other end of the spectrum are mainly from Europe and North America.

The rest of the data are not much better. Most people are pessimistic that extreme poverty will end by 2030 (rightly so) and do not know about the Sustainable Development Goals. Ninety-two percent said they have little to no knowledge about the SDGs.

(World Bank)

(World Bank)

Global Citizen, an advocacy group involved in the survey and one of the leading champions for the SDGs, naturally had a positive spin on the survey results.

“Motivaction has identified important groups of change-makers in the survey who are better informed, believe that their actions can help and are ready to get involved personally. They are more likely to believe that ending global poverty by 2030 is possible and often occupy influential positions in society, politics and business,” said Michael Sheldrick, Global Citizen spokesman, in a statement.

The findings echo the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual report that examines U.S. views on foreign aid and global health. About 5 percent of people in the U.S. correctly know that less than 1 percent of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid. The average person thinks about 25 percent of the budget goes overseas.

The numbers in the Kaiser report are relatively consistent from year to year. It shows that people in the U.S. don’t understand the federal budget and overestimate foreign aid spending, with 60 percent saying that the government spends too much. When people are told the actual spending rate, the number of people opposed drops in half and most say the amount is too little or just enough. People feel generally more positive about “global health” than they do for “foreign aid.”

poverty-survey-2To foreign aid campaigners, the Kaiser survey is proof positive that people generally like aid and that the issue is getting people to understand the facts. The Motivaction findings show that the knowledge gap is big. It breaks down respondents into “involved optimists” and “withdrawn pragmatists” to show there is an opportunity for the roughly 20 percent of people who think ending extreme poverty is possible. Hence, the positive attitude from Sheldrick.

–The ultimate point of the survey is to identify the people to preach the gospel of the Sustainable Development Goals. Few fit into the coalition of the willing and the numbers narrow as the analysis hones in on specific characteristics. But it doesn’t eliminate the basic fact that the world is making major gains against poverty, and most people are oblivious to the improvements.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]