In 1990, an estimated 93% of poor people lived in low-income countries (LICs). In the last few years, a commonly used stat also suggested that 1/3 of the world's poor lived in fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS). This fascinating paper suggests that things may have changed radically in the last two decades and estimates (roughly) that 2/3 of poor people in the world now live in non-FCAS middle-income countries (MIC). Like South Africa. A good portion of the change, Sumner suggests, results from lower-income countries moving into the middle-income category and taking the poor with them, without the lot of those poor people changing much. Putting aside the questions this might raise about categorisation, it is likely to have serious implications for humanitarian work and the tools and approaches used to fight poverty.
The most direct and obvious issues relate to the barriers to addressing poverty. In stable MICs, unlike very poor or fragile/insecure countries, the greatest barrier to development and poverty alleviation is not funding or lack of government institutions. From the perspective of activism and individual contribution, this means that hosting a dinner party to raise funds or popping off on a voluntourism holiday to play with poor-country orphans will no longer be a real option. Nor will direct service-delivery interventions. Not that it will no longer be possible for individuals and agencies to contribute in this way, but it may not be desirable.
Firstly, direct service-provision in a situation where the government can actually afford it undermines the legitimacy of the current government and the country's democratic system as a whole. This is bad for everyone. Governments, whether they are doing what they're supposed to or not, do not to enjoy being shown up by civil society, especially foreign civil society. It tends to make them defensive. This, in turn, jeopardises the potential (and highly useful) multiplier effect of cooperation between government and civil society, as well as limiting the constructive criticism and support role civil society can play in poverty alleviation.
Secondly, substitute service delivery is bad for beneficiaries. Intervention by interested individuals or external actors (such as INGOs) is never, ever as sustainable or long-term reliable as governments supplying services to their citizens as part of their everyday, run-of-the-mill activities. Intervening to fill the gap allows what little political will might exist to dwindle away because there is limited focus on accountability.
Thirdly, it is bad for aid agencies and donor governments because tax-payers in rich countries are not stupid and rapidly cease to be amused when the country their foreign aid dollars (pounds) are going to is the same one from which they are buying their fridges and washing machines and cars.
Even if this were not true, activists who truly wish to eliminate extreme poverty should probably focus strategically where they can make the most difference. Generating (or demanding evidence of) political will is probably the most effective way to ensure that delivery is happening in MICs – delivery of the services that provide social safety nets and help people build away from extreme vulnerability. In the South African example, a middle-income country with a strong tax base, a government constitutionally mandated to address poverty head-on, great national-level policies and extremely poor performance on most indicators, such as, just as an example, the MDGs. Efficient, effective, properly directed delivery of government services by government would go a long way towards fixing this.
South Africa is perhaps an extreme example, being both a country with particularly pro-poor policies and the most unequal society on earth, but if it is an extreme of the norm in these MICs and this research correctly finds that this is where the majority of the poor now reside, the focus of poverty alleviation activism is going to need to revolve a whole lot more, in coming years, around generating, monitoring and demanding evidence of political will.