General gloom with patches of diffuse light. This is the picture afforded by the Human Development Report, 2003, released by the United Nations Development Programme a couple of days ago. It looks as if the millennium development goals, set up in 2000 and targeted for 2015, would be unachievable by most countries “unless there is radical improvement”. These goals seek to make human life bearable at the most basic level: reducing extreme hunger, poverty and child mortality, improving maternal health, combating diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria, ensuring universal primary education, gender equality and environmental sustainability, and maintaining a global partnership for development. Reading the overview of the report within this larger, prospective context is a sobering, even grim, experience. One in every five people still survive on less than a dollar a day. Although south and east Asia have recently made impressive gains with respect to poverty, these regions still contain the largest numbers of people in income poverty. In the Nineties, China had lifted 12 per cent of the population out of poverty, halving its incidence. But the number of people surviving on less than a dollar a day actually increased in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Arab states, central and eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.
India and China have been mentioned for their sustained economic growth, with the former at 127 in the 175-country human development index. Some Indian states have also been praised for their achievements in decentralization. But the report brings out how countries like India and China, which are “on the whole” moving towards the stipulated goals, have “deep pockets of poor people being left behind”. Here, women, rural inhabitants, ethnic minorities and other poor people are typically progressing more slowly than national averages or showing no progress, keeping up significant disparities. Education and health are the two areas where these inequalities, and the resulting injustice, show most starkly. The analyses of gender and ethnic discrimination, infrastructural inadequacy, corruption and misgovernance in these sectors sound too close to the Indian bone to permit excessive back-patting over the achievements elsewhere. The emphasis in the report is not only on global co-operation, but also on local political will and policy-making priorities, together with the strengthening of civil society. The fact remains that most of the developing world is developing too slowly. Self-congratulation could well look rather unwarranted from this corrective point of view.