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January 28, 2014

Gates (almost) right on poverty

NORMAN — The talk of the day at last week’s World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, was Bill Gates’ audacious forecast that there will be almost no poor countries in the world by 2035.

Was it an outburst of exaggerated optimism by the richest man on earth? Or are there solid grounds to be that upbeat about the future?

In a public letter published shortly before the opening of the Davos gathering, Gates said that the 35 countries that are classified as low-income by the World Bank will emerge from that category over the next two decades.

“The belief that the world is getting worse, that we can’t solve extreme poverty and disease, isn’t just mistaken. It is harmful,” Gates wrote. “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. In two decades it will be better still.”

But almost simultaneously, Oxfam, a non-governmental coalition of 17 anti-poverty and relief organizations, released a study showing a much grimmer picture.

In its report titled “Working for the Few,” it said that the 85 richest people on earth own as much as the bottom half of the world’s population, or 3.5 billion people. Inequality is rising, and “the extreme levels of wealth concentration occurring today” threaten to exclude hundreds of millions from the benefits of modernity, it said.

Likewise, a World Economic Forum survey among its members — some of the world’s richest and most influential people — revealed that inequality ranked No. 2, only after a new economic crisis, in the list of what they see as the biggest global risks of 2014.

So who is right? I posed that question to Marcelo Giugale, the head of the World Bank’s poverty reduction programs in Africa and former head of the bank’s anti-poverty programs in Latin America, who has just released a book titled “Economic Development: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

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