Revolutionary Gains in the Things That Matter

JONATHAN POWER

November 05, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- How haphazard -- even thoughtless -- is our attitude to suffering and deprivation. Who has said more than half a dozen words about the killings in Burundi last week, or about Angola, which, for the best part of 10 years, has been the most consistently awful hell hole on the face of the earth? Neither has come in for a hundredth of the interest and concern for the former Yugoslavia, or a fiftieth of that for Somalia.

We are too scattershot in our measurement of suffering, too beholden to early prejudices and too easily manipulated by the exaggerated and relentless -- but fickle -- eye of television. The danger is cumulative. As we are fed a random diet of suffering based on misleading criteria of what is most important, we lose over time not only our discernment but our confidence in our ability to make intelligent priorities.

Strangely, we make the same mistake with successes as with failures. Look at this recent comment of the oft-quoted economist, Robert Heilbroner. The Western world, he says, ''is experiencing the startled realization that the quality of life is worsening -- that people who are three or five or ten times richer than their grandparents do not seem to be three or five or ten times happier or more content or more richly developed as human beings.''

But is this not, in large part, because we are fed selective information, by both media and politicians, that make us more aware of our failures than our successes? Are we really living, for example, in a more environmentally degraded world than our grandparents, whose industrial cities imposed no controls at all on industrial effluents? And are we not living longer and with less physical suffering, too?

Nowhere is this flimsy reckoning of mankind's achievements more apparent than the way the inhabitants of the wealthy countries of Europe, North America and Japan perceive the rest of the world -- the so-called developing countries -- which are widely seen as corrupt, poverty-stricken, disaster zones. Even where there is a little truth in this caricature, as in Africa, there is only a little. And for the overwhelming majority of the Third World, in Asia and Latin America, most of it is just plain nonsense.

In reality, in little more than a generation average real incomes in the Third World have more than doubled; child death rates have been more than halved; malnutrition rates have fallen by 30 percent; life expectancy has increased by about a third; the proportion of children enrolled in primary school has risen from less than a half to more than three quarters; and the percentage of rural families with access to safe water has risen from less than 10 percent to more than 60 percent. The proportion of couples using modern contraceptives has risen from almost nothing to more than 50 percent -- in China it is 72 percent and Brazil 66 percent. Average family size is falling in almost every country.

Only a short 70 years ago, child death rates in the cities of the industrialized world were higher than the average for Africa today. In 1990 UNICEF's World Summit for Children set a target of reducing child death rates to 70 per 1,000 births in all countries by the end of the century. Spain and Italy didn't achieve that target until the 1960s, but well over half of the developing countries, only three years into this timetable, have already reached it.

In the 1960s the under-5 mortality rate in Europe was higher than it is in most of South America today. (Interestingly, Colombia has made faster progress in this regard than any other country in the world; perhaps, after all, the drug money is being better spent than we thought.)

Ignorance of what progress has been made extends right up to the highest levels of policy making. If the quality of life can be improved so rapidly, how is it that Western aid agencies allocate less than 10 percent of their expenditure in this direction -- to meeting the most pressing needs of the poorest -- primary health care and education, clean water, safe sanitation and family planning? President Clinton's new foreign aid bill -- though it radically rewrites some of the traditional priorities -- does not appear to have grasped this point.

Developing countries themselves too often are just as culpable. They spend only 10 percent of their budgets on these basics.

We lack a sense of proportion about either success or failure. If only we could face facts rather than accepting so glibly the misleading interpretations others choose to feed us, how much more productive -- and happier -- we would probably be.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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