The Third World is catching up
Associate since 1991
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January 12, 2011
A person born in the African country of Niger can expect to live 29 fewer years, to have 9 fewer years of education and to consume 53 times fewer goods than a person born in Denmark.
For many of us this is our image of Africa and, indeed, much of the Third World.
Why is it that the press only report the trains that arrive late and the planes that crash? Bad news is their daily diet. The truth is that an overwhelming majority of poor Third World countries are on an upward trajectory. In Sub-Saharan Africa the average growth rate these days is 6% and for some countries is above 8%. This by any standards is a remarkable rate of growth. But national income growth doesn’t paint the whole picture.
The United Nations Development Program each year publish the Human Development Index, the brain child of the Indian Nobel Laureate for Economics, Amatya Sen, and the Pakistani economist, the late Mahbub ul Haq. The beauty of the HDI is that it gives a more rounded picture of what is going on in developing countries. Not just measuring the change of income, it quantifies infant mortality rates, longevity, levels of education and the position of women. In sum, all the elements of life that really count for most people.
The fastest rate of growth in HDI has been in East Asia and the Pacific, followed by South Asia and the much maligned Arab States. All but three of the 135 countries for whom there are reliable statistics have a higher level of human development than they did in 1970. There are only three exceptions- Zimbabwe, under the greedy totalitarian, pseudo Marxist rule of Robert Mugabe, Zambia which has been badly led from the beginning and never found an alternative route to development once the copper price fell and the Democratic Republic of the Congo which has been immersed in continuous war for decades.
Still, these excuses don’t explain everything. Guatemala which has one of the highest murder rates in the world is one of the better performers- the only Latin American country to make the top twenty-five.
The big surprise is that Saudi Arabia and Oman are at the top of the developing countries, not far behind Japan which is number one over all. Just below them are China, Nepal and Indonesia.
In fact these successes in HDI growth don’t usually correlate with great success in income growth. South Korea and Indonesia are the exceptions. Although income growth is one of the ingredients in HDI only South Korea and Indonesia are in top ten for both income and non-income achievement.
One popular refrain among economists is that for all their sweat developing countries are not catching up with the developed countries. For every step they take forward the Western advanced countries take two steps. Even China, the world’s fastest growing economy, cannot play catch up.
But for the people of these countries income is partially irrelevant. They are not playing football. For them what matters is their everyday life improving? Is their health and nourishment improving? Is their wife less likely to die in child birth? Will their children live through childhood? How long will they live and will their children get a good education? On all these the gap is closing and at a pretty fast rate.
Consider life expectancy. Someone born in the African country of Gambia in 1970 could expect to live to the age of 41- some 33 years fewer than someone born in Norway. By last year life expectancy in Gambia had increased by 16 years to 57, but in Norway by only 7 years. Thus while the gap between Gambia and Norway remains large it has shrunk by more than a half. If present trends continue the gap will close even faster.
There are a handful of countries that in the last decade have slipped back in their life expectancy - Russia probably because of alcoholism among men and Zambia and Zimbabwe because of unusually bad leadership. Surprisingly China has slipped back in the enrolment of its school children. Another ten countries have stagnated, neither going forward nor back. Just taking health there have been dramatic reversals in health in 19 countries (but only containing 6% of the world’s population, a more revealing measure). HIV has taken a bad toll in Africa and so has alcoholism and bad management in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
There is much to celebrate. Without the gains 6.7 million more children would be dying every year. In fact mortality in the developing countries has declined four times as fast as in developed countries. The poor countries have a long way to go but steadily they are getting there.
For the most part the trains are running on time, and even picking up speed.
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan
Jonathan Power can be
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of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging
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hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.
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