When some people living in the Global North hear of the poverty level of less than $2 per day by the United Nations and extreme poverty line of $2.15 per day as defined by the World Bank, they wonder how people survive on such amounts. This is understandable if one views poverty through the lens of the Global North. However, this is far-removed from reality. The one-size-fits-all approach to measuring poverty fails to account for contextual variations in the cost of living (including housing, food, healthcare, and education) across countries and regions, and could be a significant factor hindering the effectiveness of global anti-poverty initiatives.
In this article, we would explore the contextual variations of three crucial socioeconomic factors commonly used for poverty comparative measurements – food, rent, and education. We would build on these to make a compelling case for reframing how we define and address poverty especially at this critical moment after the 2023 UN General Assembly where world leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to 2030 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to end global poverty. We would mainly use Nigeria and the United States where both authors have lived for our comparative analysis.
Food is a fundamental concern when discussing poverty. The UN and World Bank definitions do not adequately account for the vast differences in food prices around the world. Evidence shows that restaurant and groceries prices in major Nigerian cities are about 77.7% and 66.9% lower than in the U.S respectively. So, while $2 – 2.15 per person per day is grossly insufficient for daily sustenance in a country like the U.S, it can provide balanced diet in many Global South countries.
An American TikTok tourist, Chris – Authentic Traveling (@authentic_traveling) made a video on what a $1 equivalent of the Nigerian currency (naira) can fetch you in the streets of Lagos, Nigeria. This included a sausage roll, a plate of rice, boiled brown beans, spaghetti, egg, cow skin and tomato stew; African pear and corn-on-the-cob, a 35cl bottle of coca cola coke, 2 pieces of stewed pork, and puff-puff (puffloafs). In contrast, $1 can only buy you a can of Coca Cola in the U.S.
Lagos is one of Africa’s top megacities , and has a mix of rural, urban-slums, and metropolitan areas. It is noteworthy that in the rural communities, people find innovative ways to maximize their limited resources by harnessing alternatives such as subsistent agriculture (including planting crops, fishing, and animal rearing) as their main/preferred livelihood and direct foodstuff supply source. That way, there is little need for actual monetary purchase of food.
One of the most glaring disparities in the cost of living between Global North and Global South countries is housing cost. In major U.S cities, apartment rent is exorbitant, often consuming a significant proportion of a person’s income. Average rent price in major Nigerian cities is about 64.2% lower than in the U.S, with a one-bedroom apartment annual rent of about $578.56 per month in the city center. The average monthly rent for a similar apartment in major U.S cities cost $1,852.21.
Education is another critical dimension where the context of poverty is apparent. Education costs in low income countries is significantly lower than in high-income countries, with their governments offering either free or highly subsidized fees depending on the education level. The issue of inadequate infrastructure and poorly paid teachers may be raised. However, one should not consider the quality of the curriculum and graduates subpar, as there are numerous track records of youths from developing countries competing favorably with their counterparts from developed nations in international examinations, competitions, and academics.
To further highlight the significant contrast in poverty definitions between developed and developing countries, we reviewed the 2023 U.S Federal poverty guidelines released by the Department of Health and Human Services. The guidelines state that in the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia, an individual living alone with an annual income below $14,580, and a family of four with a $30,000 annual income live in poverty, and are eligible for government assistance programs.
Let’s juxtapose these figures with the living costs in a developing country like Nigeria, where the World Bank’s ‘extreme’ poverty line is $2.15 per person per day, translating to roughly $782.75 annually. It becomes evident that a person considered poor in the U.S, could be considered middle-class or even affluent in a developing country.
We acknowledge that redefining poverty based on contextual variations in living costs is not straightforward. One might highlight that the availability of safety nets such as tuition and mortgage loans in high-income countries (which is very limited in developing nations) buffers the high living costs. However, these structures leave people in high-income countries perpetually in huge debts averaging $59,580, on student loans, mortgages, autoloans, and credit card – a situation most people in developing countries cannot relate to since they mostly live debt-free.
Furthermore, critics may also argue that such definition shift would not only complicate poverty measurements, but dilute the global poverty fight or lead to relativism, where poverty is perceived differently based on location. However, it is crucial to emphasize that the redefinition does not mean abandoning efforts to combat poverty. Instead, it calls for a more context-conscious approach that better embraces the diverse socioeconomic realities of our world so that more effective and targeted solutions can be birthed to alleviate poverty on a global scale.
Simply put, redefining poverty in both Global North and Global South would help with poverty eradication efforts and it is the equitable thing to do.
Dr. Ifeanyi M. Nsofor is a public health physician and global health thought leader. He is a graduate of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Nnamdi Azikiwe University School of Medicine. For more than 23 years since graduating as a medical doctor, he has worked in government, international non-profit organizations, indigenous non-profit health organizations and the private health sector.
Edima Ottoho is a public health professional with more than 10 years of experience. She is currently undergoing her doctoral studies (DrPH Leadership, Management, and Policy) at Boston University (BU). She also holds two master’s degrees (MPH and MBA) and is a PMP-licensed Project Manager. Edima has been involved in numerous projects in sub-Saharan Africa and in the United States and her long-term ambition is to become a Global Health Leader.