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In Asia, a huge drop in poverty comes with rising inequality: UN report points to widening economic disparities

BANGKOK, 2 July – Buoyed by rapid economic growth, Asia has made dramatic progress in the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, halving the proportion of people living on the equivalent of a dollar a day, according to a United Nations report released here today.

The UN report comes at the midpoint of a 15-year effort to implement the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight key development objectives that world leaders have pledged to achieve by 2015.

The greatest gain was in Eastern Asia, where the proportion of people living in extreme poverty fell from 33 per cent in 1990 to 9.9 per cent in 2004. In South-Eastern Asia, where extreme poverty was already down to 20.8 per cent in 1990, the percentage had dropped to 6.8 per cent by 2004.

The report said the figures put the region comfortably on track to achieve the first Millennium Development Goal, which calls for a 50 per cent reduction in extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.

But Asia’s unprecedented poverty reduction was accompanied by evidence that the benefits of economic growth are not being shared across different parts of the continent, the report said. In Southern Asia, almost 30 per cent of the population was still living on a dollar a day.

And the unprecedented positive trend in poverty reduction has been accompanied by rapidly rising inequality within countries. Eastern Asia has experienced the most dramatic rise in income inequality: the share of income (or consumption) of the poorest quintile of the population in the sub-region declined from 7.3 per cent in 1990 to 4.5 per cent in 2004.

At the same time, the statistics cited in the report show that Asia’s path to the Millennium Development Goals may be obstructed by challenges in other areas—such as health, environmental sustainability and gender equality. These include deforestation, unplanned urbanization, and the fast rate of HIV/AIDS infections in some parts of the region.

Progress in improving child nutrition is still unacceptably slow. If current trends continue, the report said, Asia will fall short of reaching the MDG target of halving the proportion of underweight children, in large measure because of slow progress in Southern and South-Eastern Asia. They are still among the sub-regions with the highest percentage of children under five suffering from malnutrition--with 46 and 28 per cent of children, in the two sub-regions respectively, still malnourished in 2005.

Asia is also lagging in meeting the Goal of promoting gender equality and empowerment, the report found, noting that large numbers of women are still shut out of jobs and receive poor health care.

In Southern Asia, the participation of women in paid, non-agricultural employment rose from 13 per cent to 18 per cent between 1990 and 2005 – still the lowest percentage of women working for wages, aside from farm labour, among all the regions of the world.

On health issues, the report noted, Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa share the distinction of having the highest number of maternal deaths – and the lowest proportion of skilled health attendants at birth. Only slightly more than one-third of women in Southern Asia receive attention from health-care personnel when giving birth, the report found.

In politics and government, the report found the gains for women were modest. In Southern Asia, the share of women serving in parliaments went from 6 per cent in 1990 to 13 per cent in 2007. South-Eastern Asia saw a 10 per cent share rise in the same period, to 17 per cent. And in Eastern Asia, women’s representation actually dropped one percentage point, to 19 per cent.

The UN report, titled the Millennium Development Goals Report 2007, is an annual statistical survey of global and regional progress toward the Goals that is produced at the request of the General Assembly. It represents the most comprehensive assessment of the MDGs, using the latest data gathered by a large number of international organizations both within and outside the UN and overseen by the UN Secretariat’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

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