THE GOALKEEPERS REPORT

The Goalkeepers Report is published every year and charts the progress toward the Global Goals. This year’s report focuses on youth population growth that will affect future world progress.

Two women walk across a field, each carrying an infant.

Is poverty inevitable?

A message from Bill and Melinda Gates

chair people
chair people

Bill and Melinda Gates

Co-chairs, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The stories behind the data

We usually express our optimism by highlighting some of the recent mind-blowing improvements in the human condition—like the fact that advances in medicine have saved 50 million lives just since we started our foundation in 2000. We believe it’s worth repeating that until we’re blue in the face.

Sometimes, though, optimism requires being candid about the hard problems that still need to be solved. That’s what this year’s Goalkeepers Data Report aims to do: confront a pressing yet neglected challenge, and identify some of the most promising strategies to meet it.

To put it bluntly, decades of stunning progress in the fight against poverty and disease may be on the verge of stalling. This is because the poorest parts of the world are growing faster than everywhere else; more babies are being born in the places where it’s hardest to lead a healthy and productive life. If current trends continue, the number of poor people in the world will stop falling—and could even start to rise.

But the reason we started our foundation is that current trends don’t have to continue. We believe—and history proves—that poor countries can chart a new course by investing in their young people.

The basis of our optimism about the world has always been our belief in the power of innovation to redefine what’s possible.
Today’s booming youth populations can be good news for the economy; if young people are healthy, educated, and productive, there are more people to do the kind of innovative work that stimulates rapid growth. This helps explain the amazing progress of the past generation in most of the world, and it is the key to spreading that progress everywhere.

Percentage of people living below the extreme poverty line (US $1.90/day)

Chart showing the percentage of people living below the poverty line from the years 1990–2017.

Three waves of poverty reduction

Chart showing the poverty reduction(and projected reduction)for three areas (sub-Saharan Africa; Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Oceania; and South Asia) from the years 1990–2050.
Our late friend Hans Rosling brilliantly described people’s different standards of living using the metaphor of how they travel: from sandals to bicycles to cars to airplanes.
Since 2000, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of the extreme poverty represented by the sandal. The number is so huge that it’s almost impossible to appreciate the scale of this achievement. Above the extreme poverty line of $1.90 per day, people may still be poor, but they can begin to think beyond mere survival and look to the future.
This progress has come in waves. The first wave centered on China; the second wave centered on India. As a result of successes in Asia, the geography of poverty is changing: extreme poverty is becoming heavily concentrated in sub-Saharan African countries. By 2050, that’s where 86 percent of the extremely poor people in the world are projected to live. Therefore, the world’s priority for the next three decades should be a third wave of poverty reduction in Africa.
One of the obstacles the continent faces is rapid population growth. Africa as a whole is projected to nearly double in size by 2050, which means that even if the percentage of poor people on the continent is cut in half, the number of poor people stays the same. Even so, for most African countries, the outlook is positive. For example, Ethiopia, once the global poster child for famine, is projected to almost eliminate extreme poverty by 2050.
The challenge is that within Africa, poverty is concentrating in just a handful of very fast-growing countries. By 2050, for example, more than 40 percent of the extremely poor people in the world will live in just two countries: Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria. Even within these countries, poverty is concentrating in certain areas.

Population and poverty projections, 2050

Map showing projections of population percentage living in extreme poverty, for 10 countries, by 2050.
Poverty in these areas is unique. It’s rooted in violence, political instability, gender inequality, severe climate change, and other deep-seated crises. It’s also tied to other problems, including high rates of child mortality and malnutrition. As a result, today’s poorest people have significantly fewer opportunities than most of the billion people who escaped poverty during the first two waves.
The conclusion is clear: to continue improving the human condition, our task now is to help create opportunities in Africa’s fastest-growing, poorest countries.
This means investing in young people. Specifically, it means investing in their health and education, or what economists call “human capital.”

Africa’s youth population is booming

Chart showing the population boom of young people in sub-Saharan Africa, and the reduction in population in South Asia.

The rest of the world is shrinking

Chart showing the population reduction in Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Oceania; and in Western Europe and North America.
Africa is a young continent. Nearly 60 percent of Africans are under the age of 25. Compare that to 27 percent of Europeans. The median age across Africa is 18. Compare that to 35 in North America (or 47 in Japan).
Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about what happens if large numbers of young people in the poorest countries are denied opportunities to build better lives. People worry about insecurity, instability, and mass migration. We wish they would also recognize young people’s enormous potential to drive growth. They are the activists, innovators, leaders, and workers of the future.
Investing in young people’s health and education is the best way for a country to unlock productivity and innovation, cut poverty, create opportunities, and generate prosperity. Human capital is not a magic bullet, but it has played a pivotal role in the success of emerging economies around the world.

what’s the challenge?

Projections show that human-capital investments can do the same for the poorest countries in Africa. Across sub-Saharan Africa, these investments could increase the size of the economy by nearly 90 percent by 2050, making it much more likely that the poorest countries can break through their stagnation and follow the path of India and China.

There are blueprints for investing successfully in human capital.

First, health: Most African countries have participated in the global revolution in child survival. Rwanda, just a few years removed from genocide, has built an effective health system from the ground up and seen the steepest drop in child morality ever recorded. The next step is making sure children don’t merely survive but also thrive. One-third of African children are stunted, which means their brains and their bodies aren’t developing fully. But there are proven strategies for solving the stunting problem. In last year’s Goalkeepers report, we wrote about Peru, where government interventions helped reduce stunting by more than half in just eight years.

The magnitude of sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth depends on human capital investment

Chart showing how much of an impact the investment of human capital can have on the economic growth of sub-Saharan Africa.

Second, education: Since 2000, the number of African children enrolled in primary school has increased from 60 to 150 million, and the number of girls in school is now virtually equal to the number of boys. The next step is improving the quality of the education all students receive. The world has ideas about how to do that, too. Later in this report, you will read about Vietnam’s schools, whose students score among the best in the world despite the fact that Vietnam was a low-income country until 2010.

Young people have enormous potential to drive growth. They are the activists, innovators, leaders, and workers of the future.
The basis of our optimism about the world has always been our belief in the power of innovation to redefine what’s possible.
When we were children, experts predicted that famines would sweep across Asia. In fact, thanks to new seeds and other agricultural technologies, crop yields more than doubled.
When we started our foundation, no children in poor countries were protected from diarrhea, malaria, and pneumonia, the three leading causes of death among children. Now vaccines for diarrhea and pneumonia are widely available, as are bed nets that have prevented well over 500 million cases of malaria.
Thanks to digital technology that didn’t exist 10 years ago, 1.2 billion people now have bank accounts for the first time ever.
It may be difficult to imagine millions of young people in the world’s most impoverished countries climbing rapidly up the ladder of success described by Hans Rosling. But the weakness is our imagination, not the young people.
If we invest in human capital today, young people wearing sandals in the poorest, fastest-growing countries will be riding bicycles tomorrow—and inventing cheaper, cleaner, safer cars next week. That’s good for everyone.
In this year’s Goalkeepers report, we take an honest look at the challenges presented by the demographics of extreme poverty. We explore what it will take in the areas of health, education, and economic opportunity to position Africa’s booming youth population to transform the continent. We examine the success of Zimbabwe’s HIV programs and consider how to build on it. We analyze how a novel Kenyan family planning program is providing hard-to-reach young women with access to contraceptives. We also follow the journey of a tomato from a field in rural Burkina Faso to a plate in Accra, Ghana, watching along the way how many jobs it creates.
This is not an exhaustive agenda for ending extreme poverty on earth, but we hope it starts a conversation about how to do so.

Conclusion

We have highlighted a formidable challenge that lies ahead for the poorest countries in the world. We have also emphasized examples of how many countries have met— and are meeting similar challenges.
Our money is on the solutions being more powerful than the problem.
Literally.
So far, our foundation has invested more than $15 billion in projects relevant to Africa. In the future, we will spend even more.
There are two reasons for this.
First, we believe Africa is the world’s most important priority for the foreseeable future. What happens to the large number of young people there will be the single biggest determinant of whether the world makes progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals—that is, whether life on this planet keeps getting better.
Second, we will invest because it yields results. The history of the past 30 years is the history of countries once considered hopeless cutting poverty and achieving historic growth: first China, then India, now Ethiopia.
Today’s poorest places can follow the same trajectory. What it will take is governments committed to helping their young people build a better future by investing in their health and education.


Young girl reaching up to write on a chalkboard.

Data check

Assess the numbers

How much has poverty, health and inequality changed over the last 20 years and what does the future look like?

Test your knowledge

Stories behind the data

Breaking down the numbers

Pure data doesn’t show the full picture. See what the numbers mean for real people and communities, and how these exemplars are pushing progress forward.

Explore the stories behind the data
A group of women in Nairobi, Kenya gather to take a selfie with a smartphone.
Family Planning

“There’s an elephant in the room. Population issues are so difficult to talk about that the development community has been ignoring them for years.”
—Alex Ezeh

Read about family planning
Three women holding signs that read “Sexual Harassment” and “Victims of Rape”.
HIV

“61 percent of Zimbabweans are 25 years old or younger, which means that they are entering the age when they are most at risk of infection.”
—Geoff Garnett

Read about HIV
A Vietnamese man teaching children around a table.
Education

“Countries like India have almost completed the first part of the equation: getting students in the door. Now they must turn to the second part.”
—Ashish Dhawan

Read about education
Tomato wholesalers selling tomatoes at a Ghanaian market.
Agriculture

“A thriving agrifood system could cut poverty in half, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and drive economic growth.”
—James Thurlow

Read about agriculture
Graphic of a line chart with green and red sections showing potential outcomes.

Progress indicators

How do we know we’re making progress?

The Goalkeepers Report tracks a set of 18 indicators every year to see what’s changing and why—dig into the data to find out.

See the global progress indicators

Partner Perspectives

We aren’t the only ones digging into the Goalkeepers Report. Writers from all over the world are exploring the progress being made and the efforts we still need to make. Here, find other essays and articles about the data the report reveals.