2020’s effect on global poverty: 7 ways to help restore what’s been lost

By Atul Tandon

Over the course of the last year, COVID-19 forced many into extreme isolation, impossible work-life balances, and grieving over lost loved ones or altered life plans. That same struggle, for people living at the bottom of the economic pyramid, turned already-precarious lives into a catastrophe.

An estimated 1.6 billion of the two billion people employed in the informal economy – smallholder farmers, casual laborers, street vendors – faced a loss of jobs or incomes, increasing hunger (if not starvation), children at risk, no health coverage, no financial support, no glimmer of early vaccinations, an uncertain future with no answers (CGAP).

The pandemic and extreme poverty

This turnabout came after decades of progress had lifted hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty – defined as those living on less than $1.90/day. Year over year, extreme poverty steadily decreased – from 1.9 billion people in 1990 to 689 million people in 2017 (World Bank).

For the first time in human history, the end of extreme poverty was within reach. And then COVID-19 hit, not only stopping but reversing our gains.

A year into the pandemic, the impact of the calamity is clear. In January of 2021, World Bank estimated that COVID would induce a rise in the extremely poor between 119 and 124 million.

“In the two decades since 1999, the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide has fallen by more than 1 billion people. Part of this success in reducing poverty is set to be reversed due to the COVID-19 pandemic” (World Bank).

In a sobering report, the United Nations University estimated that COVID-19 would trigger a global recession, with the worst impact being on the poor in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. “At the global level, the potential impact of COVID-19 poses a real challenge to the goal of ending poverty by 2030 because increases in the relative and absolute size of the number of poor … would be the first recorded since 1990,” the report said. “And they could represent a reversal of approximately a decade of progress in reducing poverty. In regions such as the Middle East and North Africa and [Sub-Saharan Africa], the adverse impacts could result in poverty levels similar to those recorded 30 years ago.”

The pandemic and severe hunger

These dramatic increases in the incidence of extreme poverty point to a consequential impact: hunger and starvation. Reduced incomes result in less food for the world’s poorest people. Four years ago, 80 million people were on the brink of starvation. By April of 2020, that number had already increased to 135 million. And this was only the beginning.

David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme, warned UN officials of “alarming global hunger and food insecurity, with the number of people ‘marching toward starvation’ spiking from 135 million to 270 million as the pandemic unfolded.” In December 2020, he told the UN General Assembly that 2021 would be catastrophic, saying, “Famine is literally on the horizon.”

It’s a warning he’s made repeatedly, first at the UN Security Council in April when he said that the world is “on the brink of a hunger pandemic that could lead to multiple famines of biblical proportions.” More recently, he likened the upcoming crisis to The Titanic, saying, “Right now, we really need to focus on icebergs, and icebergs are famine, starvation, destabilization, and migration.”

Beasley is not the only person sounding the alarm.

In July 2020, The Associated Press reported, “All around the world, the coronavirus and its restrictions are pushing already hungry communities over the edge, cutting off meager farms from markets and isolating villages from food and medical aid. Virus-linked hunger is leading to the deaths of 10,000 more children a month over the first year of the pandemic, according to an urgent call to action from the United Nations.” (AP News)

That same month, a horrifying report in The Lancet medical journal drew attention to an additional problem – wasting – “a form of acute malnutrition causing weakness, thinness, and an increased risk of death.” In response to The Lancet research, UNICEF warned that “An additional 6.7 million children under the age of five could suffer from wasting – and therefore become dangerously undernourished – in 2020 as a result of the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In addition to struggling with health, lack of income, increasing civic instability, movement restrictions, and isolation from loved ones, people around the world – including millions of children – are starving and at risk of premature death.

So, what are we to do? As people who believe that all human life is sacred and live by the call to love one another, how are we to respond to this tidal wave of human catastrophe?

7 ways we can respond to global poverty and starvation:

1. Pray. First and foremost, we turn to God and ask for help. We intercede on behalf of our neighbors. And we remember the words of Psalm 34:17, “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.”

2. Pay attention. In the face of an unprecedented global catastrophe, it can be all too easy for our view to become myopic. But as people of faith, we cannot ignore the worsening struggles of our neighbors. It is our call as believers to keep our eyes open to the world around us, even – and especially – when that world is full of pain and suffering.

3. Help people get back to work. Two billion people rely on informal employment to support their families, and 1.6 billion of them may lose their livelihoods because of COVID-19. We must ensure that as movement restrictions lift and markets reopen, these informal workers have access to the resources, capital, inventory, and tools they need to get back to work, earn a living, and feed their families.

Find an organization that creates jobs, supports entrepreneurs, or makes capital available for small businesses to help families get back to work.

4. Ensure that farmers can feed their families. Two-thirds of families living in poverty rely upon smallholder farming to support themselves, so we have to make sure they are able to continue to grow crops and get them to market – even when movement restrictions and national shutdowns limit farmers’ ability to access buyers and suppliers. By strengthening supply chains and connecting farmers to buyers, we can help them feed their families and communities.

You can help by looking for organizations that not only feed families in need now, but also those that strengthen farmers’ ability to access seeds and fertilizer, grow crops, and improve the food supply in their communities moving forward.

5. Get children back to school safely. Some 370 million children rely on school meals as a lifeline to beat hunger and malnutrition (UNICEF). The longer they are out of school, the longer they miss a daily meal that plays a crucial role in their overall health and well-being, not to mention the long-term ramifications that not receiving an education will have on their future livelihoods.

As public school systems around the world navigate reopening, you can support organizations that fund low-cost private schools – a critical educational option for hundreds of millions of young learners. You can also find organizations that are providing emergency relief to children who are hungry.

6. Help make vaccines more equitable. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said that “the world is on the brink of ‘catastrophic moral failure’ in sharing COVID-19 vaccines” (Reuters). Wealthy countries are using tens of millions of vaccine doses, while some developing countries have only administered vaccines to a few dozen people. This “me-first approach” will leave “the world’s poorest and and most vulnerable at risk” (Reuters). We cannot solve the long-term effects of the pandemic if the virus itself is still ravaging communities, so we must advocate for equitable and rapid distribution of vaccines and treatment as they become available.

You can join organizations around the world as they come together to promote free global distribution of vaccines, regardless of where they are produced.

7. Give. Many organizations are working on the frontlines of the crisis. In addition to their regular services, Opportunity International is helping vulnerable families survive by providing loan deferments, increasing digital access to bank accounts, enabling transportation for crops, keeping schools in business, and offering hands-on support. At the same time, other organizations like the World Food Programme, which won the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year, are focused on the imminent famines we face. They are actively working with governments to prevent further catastrophe. Together, the global community is working tirelessly to address the multifaceted disasters that continue to arise.

As a philanthropic community, we have the opportunity to support organizations and efforts that are working tirelessly to help people survive. In the midst of so much suffering, we can use our time, talent, and treasure to make a tangible difference for our neighbors.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
– Matthew 25:35-36

As we listen for God’s call on each of our lives, my prayer is that we will have the willingness and boldness to respond. May we follow God’s prompting on our hearts, serve our communities, and love our neighbors well – especially in this difficult and devastating season.

All photos: Opportunity International

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