The world’s most abjectly poor people are most often — too often, they say — illustrated by faces from South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, where numerically, the majority of the global poor live. A new interactive report from the World Bank moves the focus north, to eastern European countries and Central Asia, where scores of people are living on less than $5 a day in regions of intense cold in winter and where a family may have to choose between a decent meal or staying warm and free of illness.
“Poverty is an especially complex issue in Europe and Central Asia, where some 8 million people live on less than $5 per day and struggle to meet even basic needs,” says World Bank data, made vividly real in video links to family homes where people tell their own stories of survival. Some of the families are trying to get by on $1.25 or less — 72 cents a person in one case.
“As a percentage of population, the number of people living on $1.25 or less per day in the region was 0.7 percent in 2010,” the report found, acknowledging that this figure compares to 31 percent in South Asia and 48.5 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. “But in Europe and Central Asia, $1.25 per day is seldom enough to survive.”
The representative countries featured by the report and accompanying videos are Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Poland and Serbia. While special attention is not paid to Ukraine, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to see reflections of such conditions in the unrest there. Ambitions of a better life in all aspects that Ukrainian people see in Western Europe were thwarted when the door to the European Union was closed under pressure from Russia.
People in other regional countries — among them Macedonia and Moldova — also see and feel strains of the widening gaps in living standards between them and the West and large parts of Asia. (The World Bank report links to a video on how the bank measures poverty.)
In the area covered by the report, where extremes of temperature occur in both winter and summer, the winter is often the most dangerous season for families, with temperatures in the coldest places falling below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit — in some cases, almost to minus 50 degrees. A richer, highly developed country like Finland can withstand temperatures like these because of sturdy homes and purpose-built schools, shopping areas, public transportation systems and social services. When winter freezes the ground, a wide variety of imported nutritious food is always available. More important, the food is affordable for most families, including those supported by government aid programs.
Contrast that picture with the home of Katya, a woman in Kyrgyzstan, whose family, with only frigidly cold water available for washing and cooking, has been unable to pay for electricity for seven years. They huddle in one cramped room in the winter because that is all the space they can afford to heat. Or women in Serbia and Poland, whose lives look superficially better — there are shelves full of books in apparently comfortable rooms, and parents and children are nicely (though not expensively) dressed. They tell of long winters when crippling energy costs force them to scrimp on both heat and water so they can eat better.
The World Bank found that families in the European-Central Asian region, excluding Western Europe, spend on average about seven percent of their already small incomes on energy, nearly double the percentage families spend in East Asia or Latin America. Much higher percentages are found in the coldest places, where as much as two-thirds of a family’s income may be spent to stay warm. When unemployment among working-age family members rises to over 50 percent, life turns very grim.
“Paying for heating and food, which are essential to survive the region’s unrelenting winters, drove almost every decision they made,” the report said. “But contending with these expenses left these families with little to no money, which often meant that other vital ones such as medical costs or school fees had to be put off or eliminated altogether.”
The video images linger: one unidentified man spoke of having to choose between heat and sausages. A woman named Hasmik told the filmmaker not be deceived by her portly frame; she and her family were perennially hungry. As she spoke, she sifted through a basin full of what looked like wild plants or grasses, extracting a few presumably edible pieces.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.