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WHAT THE RHETORIC MISSES

When the Human Development Report 2003 came out, 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, I know what it was. The document virtually ignored the whole middle of the world.

The HDR, 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 per cent of the world’s population 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.

Sitting here in Anamur, one of the poorer parts of an upper-range developing country, I realized 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 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.

Read the statistics

The only resources in this region are bananas and a bit of tourism, but compared to when I first saw it 30 years ago, it has transformed. This is not because Turkish governments have been very good; they just haven’t been completely terrible. Even a modestly competent government, 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.

Read the statistics of the report rather than the rhetoric, and it’s quite clear: during the Nineties, the proportion of the world’s population living in absolute poverty — less than a dollar a day, at purchasing power parity — fell from 30 per cent to 23 per cent. 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 countries alone account for over half the population of the developing world.

Climbing the ladder

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 Nineties, and most of the former communist bloc in Europe experienced falls in living standards. But it is sub-Saharan Africa, with a tenth of the human race, whose plight causes near despair in the development community.

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 40 years. (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 galvanize 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.

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