Ten Countries Where Things Are Getting Better

June 03, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- Congratulations, Malaysia! Congratulations, Botswana! Since 1960, they've made more progress than any other countries in improving their general level of well-being, life expectancy, education and purchasing power.

Congratulations, too, to the others in the top ten: Portugal (the only Western country), Iran, China, Turkey, Syria, Thailand, Tunisia and South Korea.

The occasion is the publication of the Human Development Report, by the United Nations Development Program under the direction of the man who is perhaps the most versatile and original economist in the business, Mahbub ul Haq, the former finance minister of Pakistan.

The report measures more than economic growth alone, assessing income distribution, poverty eradication and universal education as well. The ten countries listed above have made the speediest progress, but the four top achievers come from the industrialized world: Canada, Switzerland, Japan and Sweden. These four have both wealth and well-being. Their income per head is high, and it is fairly equally distributed. There is little serious poverty, and an educational base that will serve well in the tough, competitive years ahead.

Contrary to fashionable gloom-mongering, ''the world has seen unprecedented progress during the last three decades,'' says Mr. Haq. In 1960, about three quarters of the world's population lived poorly by his criteria of human development. By 1990, it was down to 35 percent. Average life expectancy, the world over, has risen from 46 years to 63. Even Africa has made substantial progress.

Yet the progress could be much greater if Third World countries were more self-disciplined in their arms purchases. The U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency published new figures this week which show that while arms expenditures in the industrialized countries have fallen by 20 percent the last few years, in the Third World they have risen by 9 percent.

Too much of the money that should have been spent on increasing the pace of social development is diverted to arms, although the likelihood of dying from malnutrition and preventable disease is 33 times greater than that of dying in a war of external aggression.

Third World nations have 19 soldiers for every one doctor. These soldiers tend to be used to reduce personal security rather than to increase it. Developing countries have fought few international wars; instead, their armed forces are often used to repress the civil population.

The arms sellers are the nations charged with global security policy, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. These five export 86 percent of the conventional weapons going to developing countries. In order: Russia, the U.S., France, China and Britain.

Foreign-aid spending, Mr. Haq urges, should be tied to reduced military budgets. At present, paradoxically and irrationally, high military spenders in the Third World receive two and a half times more aid than low military spenders.

It is rumored that Mr. Haq may soon return to Pakistan to be Benazir Bhutto's minister of finance. If so, he'll have a chance to practice what he preaches, for Pakistan is a classic example of a country that badly needs aid and spends far too much on guns.

''At its worst,'' he says, ''human insecurity brought on by an imbalance between arms and social development can lead to bloodshed and a Somalia-like national breakdown.'' Last year Mr. Haq correctly predicted the revolt in Chiapas, Mexico. Using his measuring rods -- high arms spending, deteriorating food consumption, high unemployment and declining wages, human-rights violations, incidents of ethnic violence and widening regional disparities -- he predicts trouble in Afghanistan, Angola, Haiti, Iraq, Mozambique, Myanmar, Sudan, Zaire, Algeria, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

Doom is not inevitable, Mr. Haq concludes. The Third World is primarily responsible for its own destiny. Even if others want to sell the guns, nobody has to buy them.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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