There are two ways to help poor people buy more of what they need. One is to help them make more money. The other is to make the money they have go further. And Walmart has proved incredibly adept at that second approach. Take food, for instance. Walmart is the world’s biggest food retailer, and it offers foods at prices considerably lower than those at traditional supermarkets — as much as 25 percent lower, according to economists Jerry Hausman and Ephraim Leibtag. Factor in all the other stuff it sells, and Walmart’s overall impact on its shoppers’ spending power is even greater.

Walmart’s low prices come in part from relying on efficient production in developing countries. Of course it isn’t just Walmart’s procurement agents who are buying cheap stuff from Asia; pretty much the whole world is, including retailers from Bangalore to Bangui. That’s because manufacturers in China, India, and elsewhere have become particularly adept at producing low-cost versions of goods demanded by “bottom of the pyramid” consumers — otherwise known as the world’s poorest people…

That helps explain why many of the world’s most destitute people own more stuff than they used to. Take Madagascar, a very poor country that has technically been getting poorer over time. Between 1992 and 2009, the country’s real GDP per person fell from $843 to $753. But the percentage of households with a phone climbed from less than 1 percent to 28 percent, the proportion with a motorbike climbed from 4 percent to 22 percent, and the percentage with a television increased from 7 percent to 18 percent. People in Madagascar, as well as in much of the rest of the developing world, are living better and longer with more possessions to their name. That’s true even if, officially, they are as poor as they’ve ever been. And Madagascar doesn’t even have a Walmart — yet.