Overlooked by the Statistics, Life Gets Better

JONATHAN POWER

May 28, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

STOCKHOLM — Stockholm. -- Amid the jargon of modern government, finance and accounting, it is all too easy to lose direction. Too often we attempt to measure progress by statistical aggregates and technical prowess. We overlook that the main goal of life is to insure survival and, beyond that, to enable every person's well-being and achievement.

This debate reaches back at least to the time of Aristotle, who wrote, ''wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking, for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.'' Even the 19th-century philosophers of political economy never were Gross National Product absolutists after the fashion today. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill all saw the creation of wealth as only one part of a complicated organic whole.

Perhaps the most serious outcome of the narrow pursuit of increased income is that it blinds those in the richer, industrialized countries to the tremendous advances in social well-being being made in many countries of the so-called poor world. We no longer inhabit a planet simply divided in two, the rich world of North America, Europe and Japan and the poor suffering Third World masses in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In most of these countries, contrary to our perceptions of emaciated children, bungled economies and devastating weather, life over the last 20 years has become more livable, and probably more fulfilling. Even in Africa, where many people really do live in appalling and deteriorating conditions, there are pockets of hope.

Each continent has its own story. Asia, with 70 percent of the world's population, has seen, in a single generation, life expectancy increase from 46 to 64 years, and the number of children in school increase from 57 percent to 71 percent. In Southeast and East Asia, 66 percent of all couples now use contraceptives and the birthrate is falling fast. Eighty-five percent of children are immunized, and in several countries people now can expect to live beyond 70.

Latin America and the Caribbean have recorded impressive achievements, despite the rather dramatic slow-down during the lost decade,'' the 1980s. Average life expectancy is now only seven years short of that in the ''rich'' countries. In Barbados, Costa Rica and Cuba people actually live longer than they do in the industrialized world. Argentina, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Uruguay and Trinidad and Tobago have literacy rates over 95 percent.

Even sub-Saharan Africa, for all its setbacks, has taken important strides. Since 1960 infant mortality rates have fallen by 37 percent and life expectancy has increased from 40 to 52 years. Adult literacy has increased by two thirds.

The greatest living expert on measuring human progress is probably the Pakistani economist, Mahbub ul Haq. Formerly his country's minister of finance, he has for four years been the intellectual force behind the ''Human Development Reports,'' published by the United Nations Development Program. ''There is no automatic link,'' he says, ''between economic growth and human progress. Some countries, relatively few, have successfully married the two. Many, if not most, including my own, have not.''

Tuesday, Dr. Haq unveiled his latest report at a press conference in New Delhi. He has produced a table of which countries are succeeding, based not, as is usual, on their GNP totals, but on three yardsticks that are universally regarded as indicators of well-being -- longevity, knowledge and a decent standard of living. On an index constructed from this information, Japan comes out top, followed by Canada, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden.

However, if the additional factor of the position of women is added to the equation, Japan falls to 17th place, and Sweden moves to number one.

Among Third World countries, Barbados is first, followed by Hong Kong, Cyprus, Uruguay and Trinidad and Tobago.

Perhaps most interesting are the countries that are making the fastest strides toward improving their position. It is a very assorted bunch: Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Mauritius, Tunisia, Syria, Botswana, Turkey, Gabon and Algeria.

We enter a different world when we start to realize that people and their potential are the foremost wealth of a nation -- not commodities, financial accounts, shares and consumer durables.

The essential purpose of life is not to manufacture a further abundance of these artifacts, but to insure long, healthy, creative and fulfilled lives. The sooner we know this, the happier most of us will be.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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