World poverty: this is progress
Associate since 1991
Comments directly to
May 25, 2011
In some important ways perhaps a majority of the Third World peoples live a better life than did the rich of 400 or even 200 years ago in Europe and North America. In England Queen Mary 11 died from smallpox at the age of 32. Oliver Cromwell died of malaria at age of 59. In China, at the time of Queen Victoria who lived until she was 81, the Tongshi emperor also died from smallpox of the age of 18.
After the industrial revolution health in the growing economies of the Western world increased fairly fast and diverged from the rest of the world. But after 1900 the rest began to catch up and are now closing the gap at a steady pace.
According to Charles Kenny in his new book, “Getting Better”, all but a handful of poorer countries are concerned about improving the quality of life of their citizens. “Even the most corrupt and inefficient governments of Africa are providing services of a quality and extent far in advance of any country in the world prior to the Industrial Revolution.”
Smallpox has been eradicated. So has river blindness, the scourge of parts of Africa. Polio is down to its last 1000 or so of cases. The scourge of leprosy has all but disappeared. Antibiotics are widely available even, as I have seen, in some of the worst of African slums. Anti-malarial nets are spreading fast throughout Africa. Infant mortality is way down.
Sierra Leone, the country with the highest rate of infant mortality in the world, has a rate that is only 2% higher than what prevailed in the U.S. a century ago. Countries as poor and wretched as Haiti, Burma and the Congo have infant mortality rates today that are lower than those that any country achieved in 1900.
We are often beset with the televised images of famine in Africa but the truth is the proportion of people living in sub-Saharan Africa affected by famine between 1900 and 2005 averaged less than three-tenths of a percent. The proportion who were refugees was five-tenths of one percent. The number of Africans who died in wars averaged one-hundredth of a percent. Over the last decade the number of wars in Africa has fallen dramatically.
Progress is almost universal in Africa - the percentage of Africans who could read and write doubled between 1970 and 1999 - from less than one-third to two-thirds of the adult population. Today it is very much higher.
None of all this progress shows up in the national income (GDP) statistics. It is a silent revolution that shows that income levels are not the be-all of life. Nevertheless, Africans can point with pride to the GDP of a majority of African countries - they are today growing by over 5% a year, many at 7% and a handful around 9%.
I was at a conference last week in Latvia of the aviation industry organised by Baltic Air. The president of the Canadian plane company, Bombardier, told me the economies of Africa were increasing at a faster rate than any continent in the world and plane sales were following. All this progress in Africa betrays the old stereotypes of African inertia and mal-government.
Other parts of the world have also shown dramatic progress. Between 1962 and 2002, life expectancy in the Middle East and North Africa jumped from 48 years to 69 - the biggest increase of any region in the world. One can talk about tyranny, corruption, lack of human rights and too much bureaucracy but in fact when it comes to the essentials of life progress has been rapid. Even Saddam Hussein’s Iraq showed fast progress which the war savagely interrupted.
The United Nations Millennium Development Goal of halving the world population living on less than one dollar a day between 1990 and 2015 was met early - around 2007. In 1990 it was 44%; now it is below 17%. This dramatic advance was mainly because of the tremendous progress in the world’s two most populated countries, India and China - well over 2 billion people. (When using statistics it is better to count the number of people than the number of countries.)
Alas, many observers seem blinded to much of this. They prefer to focus on the growing inequality between income groups. Yes, in countries such as India, China, Kenya and Nigeria the differential has grown fast. But in Brazil it has been seriously narrowed. And some African countries, such as Tanzania and Uganda, are seeing the gap closing.
For the poor, however, what matters is their health and that their children should not die, not necessarily the pursuit of equality. There is a long, long way to go. But we should be very happy about the progress made.
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan
Jonathan Power can be
reached by phone +44 7785 351172
and e-mail: JonatPower@aol.com
The Quest for Global Justice
of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging
from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can
we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will
China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of
his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the
International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the
hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.
William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"
Tell a friend about this column by Jonathan Power
Message and your name
free articles & updates