Among the most vicious enemies of human welfare is poverty. In a world plagued with limited resources, bad governments and unsound economic policies, it often appears to be an inescapable scourge. Most people paid no attention in 2000 when the United Nations proclaimed the goal of halving the number of earth's inhabitants living in extreme poverty by 2015, compared to 1990.
But way ahead of schedule, the target has already been hit. For the first time since it began tracking, says a new World Bank report, "the data indicate a decline in both the poverty rate and the number of poor in all six regions of the developing world."
In 1981, 70 percent of those in the developing world subsisted on the equivalent of less than $2 a day, and 42 percent had to manage with less than $1 a day. Today, 43 percent are below $2 a day and 14 percent below $1.
"Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history: Never before have so many people been lifted out of poverty over such a brief period of time," write Brookings Institution researchers Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz.
Just as important as the extent of the improvement is the location: everywhere. In the past there has been improvement in a few countries or a continent. Not this time.
China has continued the rapid upward climb it began three decades ago. India, long a laggard, has shaken off its torpor. Latin America has made sharp inroads against poverty. "For the first time since 1981," says the World Bank, "we have seen less than half the population of sub-Saharan Africa living below $1.25 a day."
The start of most global trends is hard to pinpoint. This one, however, had its big bang in the early 1970s, in Chile. After a socialist government brought on economic chaos, the military seized power in a bloody coup and soon embarked on a program of drastic reform -- privatizing state enterprises, fighting inflation, opening up foreign trade and investment and unshackling markets.
It was the formula offered by economists associated with the University of Chicago, notably Milton Friedman, and it turned Chile into a rare Latin American success. In time, it also facilitated a return to democracy. Chile was proof that freeing markets and curbing state control could generate broad-based prosperity, which socialist policies could only promise.