Human Development

3 August 2003

The Middle Three-Fifths

By Gwynne Dyer

When the Human Development Report 2003 came out two weeks ago, there was obviously something wrong with it, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Today, sitting in a campsite at the southernmost point of Turkey (even journalists take vacations), I know what it was. The document virtually ignored the whole middle of the world.

The Human Development Report, an annual jeremiad issued by the United Nations Development Programme, is always a contradictory mix of rhetoric that says the sky is falling and statistics that tell a more hopeful story. This year, the rhetoric says that the richest one percent of the world’s population, some 60 million people, now receive more income than the whole bottom half. Western Europeans, we are told, were three times richer than Africans in 1820; now they’re thirteen times richer. Life expectancy at birth in Britain is 78.2 years; in Zimbabwe, a former colony of Britain’s, it has now fallen to 33.1 years.

All true — and about as helpful a statistic as the fact that the richest hundred thousand Americans have more money than the poorest hundred million. A more relevant fact is that the United States is so rich that all but the bottom thirty or forty million Americans actually live quite well by global standards. Income distribution may be less equal in America than in most other developed countries, but when there’s enough to go around, trickle down’ works. The same is true elsewhere — and a lot of countries are now nearing the point where there is enough to go around.

 Sitting here in Anamur, one of the poorer parts of an upper-range developing’ country, I realised what the UNDP report was missing. Most of the people around here live in ugly concrete boxes now, much less attractive than the traditional dwellings they have come to despise, but the ugly boxes do have electricity and indoor plumbing and the roof doesn’t leak. They drive like maniacs, but many of them have cars. They complain about their poverty, but they do have cash incomes. And their kids live to grow up, and go to school, and will have very different lives from their parents.

The only resources in this region are bananas and a bit of tourism, but compared to when I first saw it thirty years ago it has been transformed. This is not because Turkish governments have been very good over the past thirty years; they just haven’t been completely terrible. Even modestly competent government, almost regardless of the resources available, will produce a reasonably healthy, fairly well educated population in only one or two generations — and in one more generation they will probably have decent social services as well.

People everywhere have ambitions for themselves and their children, and they will work hard to make decent lives for themselves if they see any hope of success. All they need is a reasonable degree of physical security (the first job of any government), and a political environment where the wealth they create for themselves and their children will not immediately be stolen by the most powerful people in their society, and time. So the truth of the matter, largely hidden in the report, is that most of the world is now making its way up the ladder towards security, prosperity, and even democracy.

Read the statistics of the report rather than the rhetoric, and it’s quite clear: during the 1990s, the proportion of the world’s population living in absolute poverty — less than a dollar a day, at purchasing power parity — fell from 30 percent to 23 percent. Alas, we are told, most of this change was due to improving living standards in China and India — as if that were surprising, given that these two countries alone account for over half the population of the developing world, and as though poor Indians and Chinese were somehow less deserving than poor Africans, for example.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and in this case the wheel that gets everybody’s attention is the accelerating decline of living standards in most of Africa. Some countries in Latin America and the Middle East also went backwards economically in the 90s, and most of the former Communist bloc in Europe experienced falls in living standards (although everybody assumes that that is merely transitional). But it is sub-Saharan Africa, with a tenth of the human race, whose plight causes near despair in the development community’, and drives the kind of crisis rhetoric that infects the report.

The crisis in Africa is real, but its major cause is truly awful governments. Even more than the AIDS epidemic, it is corruption and war that have driven Africa to the bottom of every index of human development during the past forty years. (Nobody except Africans remembers it now, but in 1960 most African countries had higher incomes and better public services than most Asian countries.) And even the AIDS plague is far less devastating in countries like Uganda that have moderately competent governments.

The extreme rhetoric about collapsing living standards and growing gaps between rich and poor is meant to galvanise people in the richer countries into action, and maybe it is needed in order to persuade them to do painful but necessary things like opening their markets to agricultural exports from Africa, but it is also deeply misleading. About one-fifth of the world is rich, and another fifth is desperately poor and getting poorer, but the middle three-fifths is actually making solid progress — not because of foreign aid or some special political or economic formula, but because it only takes security, sensible government, and time for people anywhere to climb the ladder.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“All…around”; and”People…democracy”)