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Extreme poverty is getting more and more concentrated in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, says the Gates Foundation in a report whose findings are backed up by estimates from the World Bank and the World Data Lab.

This means that poverty reduction on the continent should be “the world’s priority for the next three decades”, write Bill and Melinda Gates in the Goalkeepers data report, which was released ahead of an event held with heads of state and other guests this week (September 26), during the UN General Assembly in New York.

The message echoes warnings in this year’s world food security report, also released this month by UN agencies, which documents a recent reversal of the decline in the number of hungry people globally — a situation that’s getting worse on the African continent.

“To put it bluntly, decades of stunning progress in the fight against poverty and disease may be on the verge of stalling,”

Bill and Melinda Gates

Goalkeepers is the foundation's campaign to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). After an optimistic first report published last year, the campaign now warns that extreme poverty — defined as living on less than US$1.90 per person per day — could begin to rise by 2050, a trend that undermines progress towards the SDGs.

“To put it bluntly, decades of stunning progress in the fight against poverty and disease may be on the verge of stalling,” say Bill and Melinda Gates. “If current trends continue, the number of poor people in the world will stop falling—and could even start to rise.”

They put this down to rapid population growth in some of the poorest countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, and conclude that the solution is to invest in youth. "What happens to the large number of young people there [in Africa] will be the single biggest determinant of whether the world makes progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.”

This is because Africa’s young population is booming while the rest of the world’s is shrinking, according to the report; and human capital investments have worked for other countries before. While young people may have fewer opportunities in countries plagued by a series of problems, from political instability to climate change and high rates of malnutrition, they can also drive economic growth. “They are the activists, innovators, leaders, and workers of the future,” says the report.

A different set of 2030 forecasts, released earlier this year by the World Data Lab, signalled the overall trend. They say their analysis shows that SDG1 — “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” — will become increasingly harder to achieve, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. “In our model, when you go up to 2030, the [poverty reduction] rate is falling and it’s almost come to a standstill,” says Kristofer Hamel, chief operating officer at the World Data Lab.

Martin Hofer, a data scientist at the World Data Lab, says that age is an important factor but so are gender and education — and investing in young people’s education has a double impact. “First it improves the growth rates of a country, just because higher human capital is always favourable for growth. And women’s education reduces the fertility rate at the same time.”

An update to the World Bank’s poverty statistics also released this week points to similar global trends to 2030. It explains that the change is down to a slower decline in poverty rates, which is driven by a shift in where poor people are concentrated: from regions with higher economic growth (East Asia and South Asia) to regions with lower growth regions. The Bank’s forecast suggests that nearly nine in 10 extremely poor people will live in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030. According to the World Data Lab’s World Poverty Clock, which shows how poverty changes in real time, Nigeria has already topped the world’s poorest in June this year, and the DRC on track to surpass India next year, with over 60 per cent of its population living on less than US$1.90 per day.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Nigeria fall under the spotlight of the Gates foundation too. Its analysis predicts that the two countries will be home to 40 per cent of the world’s extremely poor people by 2050.

The two analyses also agree that Ethiopia is a success story: a country on track to be the first sub-Saharan Africa country to achieve SDG1 by 2050, or before 2030, depending on the model. Along with other success stories such as Tanzania, this signals the diversity between and within countries on the continent.

While optimists see an ‘Africa rising’ to prosperity and attracting business interest, the backdrop of growing poverty highlighted in this week’s warnings point to stark inequalities where growth led by exploitation of natural resources has failed to translate to gains in human well-being.

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