Continents At The Brink

September 28, 1990|By Jonathan Power

ROME — OIL PRICES have not yet reached $60 a barrel, as some Cassandras direly foretold, but they've risen far enough already to torpedo two continents.

If Africa and Latin America must suffer another decade of oil-induced debt, recession, bad management and chronic poverty, the 1990s will come to be described not, like the '80s, as a ''lost decade,'' but as the ''final decade,'' when whole societies were pressed so hard that human will was broken and recognizable civilization stopped.

It is no exaggeration to describe the state of some African and Latin American societies as terminally destructive. The devastating, and continuing, famines of Ethiopia and the Sudan have not only taken countless lives, but, along with perpetual war, they have reduced government to sporadic and listless efforts. The streets of Brazilian cities are home to 7 million abandoned children, dodging death squads in the pay of businessmen who wish to rid their elegant neighborhoods of these ''lords of the flies.'' And now, according to new reports, they risk being sent to Italy as ''adoptees,'' only to be murdered and their organs used for transplants.

This week, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank met jointly in Washington and, with the assent of the finance ministers of the big Western countries, decided greater resources are needed for states whose economies are damaged by the United Nations sanctions against Iraq.

The gesture is welcome but the finance allocated is to be reserved principally for those in Iraq's immediate neighborhood -- Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. The finance ministers made no tangible progress on further debt relief for Africa and Latin America, and offered no ideas on how to counter the immense deflationary forces now threatening these continents.

We are compelled to take inspiration where we can find it. Most of the Third World, if we count people rather than countries or continents, managed not just to bake bread during the difficult 1980s, but to make cakes, too. This ''miracle'' happened mainly in Asia.

Indonesia, one of the largest of Third World countries, took less than a generation during the 1970s and '80s to reduce the incidence of poverty from almost 60 percent of the population to less than 20 percent. China, which accounts for a quarter of the Third World's people, has pushed its life expectancy to 69 years, not far short of the industrialized world's. India, with another 800 million people, has pulled nearly 100 million out of poverty since 1980. At this rate it will have lifted over half its population off the poverty floor by the end of the decade.

Yet Indonesia had the same problems as Latin America. Exchange-rate movements pushed its ratio of debt to gross national product to twice that of Brazil. But at the moment of crisis, it moved quickly to devalue and to cut public spending. Brazil, like so many Latin American countries faced with the drying up of foreign loans, financed its blooming deficit by borrowing at home and by printing money.

India was just as badly hit as was Africa by the doubling of the price of oil in 1979, but rather than becoming inward-looking, protectionist and defensive, it pushed policies that encouraged a sharp rise in investment, productivity and exports.

Even in Africa a few countries buck the trend toward failure. Ghana is well on the way to economic recovery, and Botswana, a model of good housekeeping all along, has cut its mortality rate for children under 5 from 165 per thousand to 70, and has achieved universal primary schooling. In Latin America, prudent Colombia, Chile and Costa Rica have had similar success.

The secret is political direction.

Two straightforward steps could do remarkable things for the prospects of both Africa and Latin America. First, remove the bias (taxes and prejudice) against the use of labor rather than machines.

Second, increase spending on primary education, probably the single greatest means of improving the condition of the poor.

If the two hardest-hit continents could do this and also adopt basic public-health measures such as inoculations, anti-diarrheal salts and encouragement of breast feeding, they could transform the condition of the poor in five to ten years.

If the Iraqi crisis and the threat of oil-price rises concentrate the African and Latin American minds, then even Saddam Hussein will have unwittingly contributed something to the progress of mankind.

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