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Imprisoned in poverty

Published by The Earth Times on 1997-09-01

On the morning of Sept. 15, the mandarins of global finance and fiscal policy will gather in a newly minted facility in Hong Kong to reflect on the state of the world. On the occasion of the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, some 15,000 bankers, finance ministers and deacons of the development business will doubtless cheer one another with Bank/IMF data showing the world's economy to be more buoyant than in many years, stock markets generally booming, corporate earnings high, and a pervasive sense of wellbeing in the industrialized nations.

For 10 days--in between sumptuous banquets and assorted receptions hosted by investment institutions and the Beijing regime, the new socialist managers of capitalist Hong Kong--participants will chant the mantras of sustainable development and economic liberalization.

They will miss the point.

The point isn't that economic growth in developing countries may accelerate over the next 25 years, as a new World Bank report has forecast, and that the five biggest emerging economies--Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Russia--may become economic powerhouses in the foreseeable future. Nor is it the point that more and more markets are opening up in the 127 countries of the third world to Western exporters, with shops stocked with brand names such as Nike and Sony, with blacks, browns and yellows happily guzzling Coke and Pepsi.

The point is 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, even as 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. Add to the list the endemic bureaucratic corruption that plagues the third world and siphons scarce resources from social and economic development.

But who wants to hear about these inconvenient realities nowadays? 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. Indeed, new bureaucracies such as the U.N.'s Commission on Sustainable Development, have sprouted to promote a notion that no one has quite figured out. 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 cheerful talk of global economic growth, there are more children going to bed hungry each night, more mothers having unwanted babies because of inadequate family-planning services, and more people in need of jobs.

It may be unfashionable, of course, to harp on poverty and overpopulation in glamorous conference chambers in Hong Kong. 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 cited by the World Bank--Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Russia--also figure among the most corrupt nations cited 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 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.

And yet, investment by donor countries in population control and reproductive health is shrinking--the annual figure is about $5 billion, a tenth of the overall development aid to the third world. 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 lessening 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. More people doesn't necessarily mean that markets get bigger. That is because population growth in the third world has thickened the cohort of the poor, not that of people with purchasing power for goods peddled by Western exporters. The financial titans meeting in Hong Kong would well to keep in mind that while the poor may always be with us, they need not be always imprisoned in poverty in such vast and growing numbers.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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