Developing countries have raised large numbers of their people above the international community's dollar-a-day poverty line but few of the "ultra poor" -- 162 million people living on less than 50 cents a day -- have benefited and in some regions their numbers have swollen, says the report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), issued Tuesday.
Researchers say the findings, based on household survey data from 20 developing countries, constitute a wake-up call for the international aid establishment and national leaders.
"The dismally slow progress in reaching people living in ultra poverty clearly shows that business as usual is not good enough," said Ruth Vargas Hill, an author of the report.
The think tank urges aid officials to tailor anti-poverty efforts to fit the specific needs of the ultra poor.
Needed initiatives include basic training in literacy, numeracy, and other skills required to make use of microcredit, which has helped many poor people but remains beyond the reach of the poorest, said Akhter Ahmed, lead author of the report.
Policies that make outcasts of citizens because of their ethnicity or religion also must be scrapped: The report says the ultra poor overwhelmingly come from minority or, in the case of India, lower-caste communities.
Scattered about the economic fringe, the ultra poor are so numerous that were they to be gathered in a single country, it would rank as the world's seventh most populous behind China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan.
This country would be overwhelmingly rural and lack roads connecting scattered hamlets to market towns. It would be populated almost entirely by illiterate and innumerate outcasts whose physical strength and stamina is drained by malnutrition.
In all, some 969 million people -- nearly one-sixth of all people -- fall below the dollar-a-day poverty line. Half of them live on at least 75 cents a day and about one-third live on between 50 cents and 75 cents. The ultra poor make up 17 percent of the poor.
Africa south of the Sahara is home to 121 million, or three-fourths, of the ultra poor. Scant progress in reducing poverty combined with rapid population growth has resulted in increases in the number of poor people in each poverty category, says the report, "The World's Most Deprived".
Nigeria accounts for 21-30 percent of Africa's ultra poor and their numbers grew between 1990 and 2004, researchers found.
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Ultra poverty has been on the rise in Latin America and the Caribbean, which accounts for about 12 million, or 7 percent, of the world total. Haiti, Brazil, and Mexico are home to the region's largest poor populations. In Venezuela, the number of ultra poor rose from nearly zero to more than 2 million between 1990 and 2004.
East Asia and the Pacific is home to 8.8 million ultra poor, or 5 percent of the world total. Rapid economic growth across the region has benefited all three categories of poor people almost equally. China, with 70 percent of the region's poverty, led the rise from poverty.
Nearly 20 million, or 12 percent, of the world's ultra poor live in South Asia. The region saw economic growth to rival pace-setting East Asia and the Pacific in 1990-2004 but failed to parlay this into gains for its poorest people.
In 1990, the two Asian regions had the same number of people living on less than a dollar a day, IFPRI says. By 2004, East Asia and the Pacific had lifted 307 million people out of poverty. South Asia managed to improve the lot of only 33 million.
"New and different action is urgently needed to improve the livelihoods of the world's poorest people," said Joachim von Braun, the IFPRI director general.
Existing measures to promote income growth need to be buttressed with measures that reduce the risks and costs that ultra poor people incur in daily life and that cut them off from economic opportunity.
"Simply focussing on growth will not be enough," von Braun added.
Researchers welcomed recent commitments, chiefly by the World Bank, to promote "inclusive" growth and an agricultural revival but warned that the ultra poor would need social safety nets, better nutrition, affordable crop insurance, basic skills training, instruction and support to help them ease into raising at least some of their produce for market, and more infrastructure connecting them to local centres of trade.
Successful experiments with community-based insurance contracts -- which provide farmers with group discounts unavailable to individual policy-holders -- in Ethiopia and Syria should be taken further afield, von Braun said.
The need for insurance rises as global climate change worsens, exposing farmers to a heightened risk of crop failure and environmental calamity, he added.
Ahmed, a Bangladeshi, said experience in his country, a pioneer in providing tiny loans to villagers, showed that "microfinance is about running a business but the poorest of the poor don't have access or end up using most of it for consumption, so they need to be made able to use microfinance through skills development and training in basic literacy and numeracy."
Land reform also might be called for. Most of Asia's poorest are landless, said Ahmed, but not so in sub-Saharan Africa. However, the land held by Africa's poorest is insufficiently productive.
© 2007 Inter Press Service