Believe it or not, the world ISN'T doing the handbasket thing

September 11, 1996|By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON -- ''A new vision of global solidarity is needed to match the push for globalization,'' wrote Richard Jolly, chief author of the United Nations Development Program's ''Human Development Report 1996.'' ''Without this vision and action, globalization will become a monster.''

''If present trends continue,'' added James Gustave Spaeth, head of the U.N. Development Program, ''economic disparities between industrial and developing nations will move from inequitable to inhuman.''

Depending on how old you are, you have already been hearing this sort of alarmism for 10, 20 even 30 years. Always the same pious tone, and always the same simple message. It's always getting worse, the gulf between the world's rich and the world's poor is always widening, the time for a last-ditch effort to reverse the trend is always now.

This simple division of the world into rich and poor, the few barons and the many hungry serfs, was true once. Back in the '60s and '70s, the North was rich, the South was poor, and never the twain could meet. A simple, feudal vision of the world for a simpler time. But it isn't true now.

What is actually happening in the world now is akin to what happened in Europe at the end of the feudal era. A new class is emerging, a global middle class, and it will ultimately come to dominate global society both numerically and economically.

With Brazil overtaking Canada this year to become the second-largest manufacturer of cars in the Western Hemisphere, and with Malaysian-built cars showing up in European markets, you would think this development impossible to ignore. Think again.

The U.N. report, published in July, was an extended whine on familiar old themes. It depicted poor countries as the norm, and blamed their poverty on the rich ones.

The assets of the world's 350 billionaires, we were told, exceed the combined annual incomes of 45 percent of the world's people. In 70 countries, almost all in the Third World, average incomes are lower than they were in 1980; in 43 countries, lower than in 1970.

Even the good news is bad

True, in a select group of 15 Third World countries, mostly in Asia, there has been phenomenal economic growth, but even this, we are told, is suspect. China, for example, will have to create 200 million jobs over the next 10 years to provide employment for its young and growing work force.

The world, in other words, is in a mess.

A familiar litany, delivered in a familiar style, and most of the world's media uncritically reported it as fact. But it is simply not true. Worse, it is dangerously misleading.

The report's authors were probably being manipulative rather than just plain ignorant, for it is their job to drum up sympathy and help for the world's poor. It still serves their purposes to paint the world as a two-class society of rich northerners and poor southerners, in order to play on the northerners' sense of guilt and shake some money loose for the world's truly poor countries.

But we cannot even begin to address the real development problems of the '90s if we persist in discussing them in the terms of the '70s. So it is useful to see just how the U.N. report is misusing statistics in order to create its false picture of the

world.

The mere ''15 Third World countries, mostly in Asia,'' that are experiencing sustained high economic growth, just happen to include China, India and Indonesia. Those countries alone account for almost half the human race. But if you omit that key population fact wherever possible, you can make it sound like economic growth is a rare flower in the Third World.

As for the 70 countries whose ''average incomes are lower than in 1980,'' they were almost all either African countries (whose economic, social and political plight is well known but virtually unique), or former Soviet-bloc countries going through a temporary setback due to the economic transition from communism.

The total population of those 70 countries was 1.5 billion, which is certainly a lot of people living in poverty. But that same statistic tells us that average incomes are stable or growing in the countries inhabited by the other three-quarters of the world's people.

Other widely available statistics tell us with undeniable clarity that a clear majority of the people in what used to be the Third World live in countries where average incomes are growing far more rapidly than in the developed countries.

It is true, as people in the aid business insistently point out, that the income gap between the top 20 percent of the world's population and the bottom 20 percent has doubled since 1961, but that is predominantly because of the African disaster. The gap between the top 20 percent and the middle 60 percent is closing, and closing remarkably fast.

The reality of the global market is the relatively rapid emergence of a broad global middle class in Asia and Latin America, and the equally rapid emergence of a global underclass in most of Africa and much of the Middle East.

This is not a pretty picture, and it is fraught with dangers for the future, for Africa and the Middle East are also the regions where democracy is weakest or simply absent, where the environment is most fragile, and where population growth is highest.

But it is not the world the U.N. Development Program would have us believe in. And for all its defects, it suggests a less appalling future than the terminal nuclear confrontation between a billion rich, beleaguered northerners and all the rest of humanity in a starving, desperate South that seemed such a plausible future to people in the ' 70s.

Gwynne Dyer is a free-lance columnist.

Pub Date: 9/11/96

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