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The World Bank, the IMF and a quiet nun from Calcutta

Published by New York Times on 1999-01-01

While millions of people around the world watched the televised funeral for Mother Teresa in India last weekend, scores of American investment bankers joined other high priests of global finance on planes bound for Asia. They were headed not to Calcutta, where the remarkable Roman Catholic nun who championed the cause of the poor was laid to rest, but to Hong Kong, where the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund began September 15.

These high-powered meetings--scheduled to end September 25--are dominated by Americans because of Wall Street's enormous influence in the global markets and because American financial acumen is eagerly sought in the field of international economic development. World Bank/IMF meetings are a dazzling financial bazaar--almost exclusively featuring men--where complex deals on billion-dollar projects are made at soirees. In between sumptuous banquets and assorted receptions hosted by investment institutions and the Beijing regime--the new socialist managers of capitalist Hong Kong--grave men in gray suits will chart global economic policy for the next 12 months.

Mother Teresa was seldom invited to these formal talkfests, even though her life's work focused on human development, but she sometimes met with barons of business during her visits to New York and other American cities. Her message to them was that investment by the private sector in underprivileged societies was as much a humanitarian activity as an economic one. Creating jobs for the needy was also a form of showing compassion for them. Moneymen and missionaries, Mother Teresa said, could join in a collective effort to bring relief for the dispossessed if there was sufficient commitment on the part of the financial community and enough well-organized projects. Charity, according to her, wasn't simply a matter of raising funds; it was more meaningful to ensure that funds went to where the needs were.

What Mother Teresa said is especially relevant now because World Bank and IMF studies indicate that never have there been more poor people in our world, and never has the world kept adding more poor people to its population. Nearly a third of the global population of 5.8 billion lives in "absolute poverty," defined as per capita income of less than the equivalent of $370 annually. Some 82 countries are unable to produce or buy sufficient food for their populations, according to the Washington based Population Institute; a record 100 million children are being born each year in "developing" countries that can least afford to support such staggering population growth. Each year, 24 million women enter the child-bearing stage in poor countries, and a vast majority of them do not have access to adequate family planning services.

Chronic water shortages, mounting environmental degradation, urban congestion, high crime, rising numbers of abortions, increasing drug use- all these are established consequences of galloping population growth. More than 31,000 children under the age of five die each year from preventable diseases. Add to the list the endemic bureaucratic corruption that plagues the third world and siphons scarce resources from social and economic development.

But these are inconvenient realities for the world's financial mandarins. They emphasis, instead, warm fuzzy concepts such as "emerging economies," "globalization" and "liberalization." Development institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF do well by poverty, of course; their administrators are given tax-free salaries and enviable perks in order to dream up ways to generate universal prosperity. Employment opportunities in the "sustainable development" business are increasing, but none of its managers is obliged to dwell on the bottom line. The bottom line, starkly put, is that despite all the heady talk of global economic growth, there are more children going to bed hungry each night, more mothers having unwanted babies because of poor family-planning services, and more people in need of jobs.

It is not fashionable to dwell on the victims of globalization, the growing numbers of the third world's men and women who cannot compete in the global bazaar because social development has simply not kept up with national needs--and because many developing nations are still ruled by kleptocrats. At development talkfests, the emphasis is on free markets, on entrepreneurship, on access to capital--as if repeating these mantras will miraculously foster a new environment of growth and change in languishing societies. (Ironically, the five incipient powerhouses recently cited by the World Bank--Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Russia--also figure among the most corrupt nations named by the respected Berlin based watchdog, Transparency International.)

But, as both the late Mother Teresa and Princess Diana--neither a "sustainable development" brahmin--would often say, global poverty cannot be wished away. It's fine for the private sector to invest in Nike factories, but where's the much-needed investment in social development?

The financial titans gathering in Hong Kong might do well to rededicate themselves to slowing population growth through more attention to reproductive health, education for girls, and employment for women. An important new study by Population Action International, a Washington think-tank, has shown that greater access to schooling for girls and young women leads to lower birth rates; a secondary school education often results in later marriages. The PAI study shows, for example, that a Peruvian woman who has completed 10 years of education typically has two or three children, while a woman with no formal education has up to 10 children. Smaller families often mean better health-care for children and enhanced economic prospects for adults.

Mother Teresa may have opposed abortion and family planning on religious grounds, but she was all for the education for girls, and employment for women. An important new study by Population Action International, a Washington think-tank, has shown that greater access to schooling for girls and young women leads to lower birth rates; a secondary school education often results in later marriages. Smaller families often mean better health-care for children and enhanced economic prospects for adults. The PAI study shows, for example, that a Peruvian woman who has completed 10 years of education typically has two or three children, while a woman with no formal education has up to 10 children. Smaller families often mean better health-care for children and enhanced economic prospects for adults.

But donor countries are lessening their assistance to developing nations: the figure for 1996 was barely $50 billion, almost $10 billion less than five years earlier. The U.S., a traditional leader in population issues, spends less than $1.50 per person for population aid to developing countries, and the ideological sentiment in Congress favors shrinking such aid.

Strengthening population and reproductive-health programs, and creating better education and job opportunities for women, are a worthy way of investing in people's wellbeing and, indeed, the national health of developing countries. Population growth in the third world has dramatically increased the numbers of the poor, and not that of people with purchasing power for goods promoted by American and other Western exporters.

A new World Bank study says that economic growth in developing countries may accelerate over the next 25 years, and that the five biggest emerging economies--Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Russia--may become economic powerhouses in the foreseeable future. The study also asserts that more and more markets are opening up in the 127 countries of the third world to Western exporters. But how many poor people can afford Nike and Sony, or even a can of Coke?

As the strains of the solemn hymns at Mother Teresa's funeral fade away, and as the cocktail-party cackle at the Bank/IMF meetings in Hong Kong becomes a crescendo, the world's financial wizards can surely find ways to cut a deal that would constitute a simple but powerful memorial to that small, extraordinary woman from Calcutta: A new global commitment to reduce poverty and suffering. If a small frail woman could mobilize enormous moral power to alleviate poverty and hopelessness one hovel at a time, can't the financial captains of this world channel just a bit of their enterprise and expertise toward ensuring a more secure future for the growing numbers of the dispossessed?

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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