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Hijinks in Hongkong

Published by New York Daily News on 1997-09-01

Scores of New York investment bankers and financiers are spending the next few days in Hong Kong, whose new Chinese landlords are hosting the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These high-powered meetings are dominated by New Yorkers because they represent Wall Street wealth and American financial acumen that are eagerly sought in the field of international economic development.

At these meetings, it is unlikely that these grave men in gray suits will give much thought to a woman who sometimes met with them in their wood-panelled offices, Mother Teresa; they are more likely to be discussing the sanguine state of the world economy--high corporate earnings, booming stock markets--and probably Ted Turner's stunning announcement that he would donate $1 billion to UN causes over the next decade.

But Mother Teresa's message of poverty alleviation should surely be heeded by the Hong Kong talkfesters. She often said 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 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.

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. 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.

The financial titans gathering in Hong Kong should pay more attention to reproductive health issues, 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.

And yet, 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 is toward 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.

As the cocktail-party cackle at the Bank/IMF meetings in Hong Kong becomes a crescendo, New York's financial wizards should find it in their hearts to dedicate a simple but powerful memorial to that small, extraordinary woman from Calcutta: A new global commitment to reduce poverty and suffering. Ted Turner's billion dollars may be a fine start--but charity isn't necessarily the best way to reduce poverty and disease. Creating job opportunities, building more schools and health clinics, and educating women are smarter ways to ensure equitable social development.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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