“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” It may have been Ella Fitzgerald who first said that, or maybe it was Sophie Tucker. Doesn’t matter. It’s true, other things being equal—but “other things” are not equal.
On September 20-22, while the United Nations General Assembly is holding its annual meeting in New York, most of the world’s leaders will come together to review progress on the “Millennium Development Goals” that the UN adopted 10 years ago. All the anti-poverty campaigners will claim that change has been too little and too slow, but actually it hasn’t been bad at all.
Measured against the real state of the poorest countries in the late 20th century and not against some impossible dream of a perfect world, there have been major improvements in key areas like literacy, access to clean water and infant mortality. A great deal of the progress has been due to the efforts of the poor countries themselves, but there have been big changes in the behaviour of the rich countries too.
Back in the '60s, '70s and '80s, most aid to developing countries was driven by the competition for global influence in the Cold War—so when that confrontation suddenly ended in 1989-90, the rich countries’ main motive for giving aid vanished. The '90s were a miserable time when the flow of aid virtually dried up, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of 2000 were an attempt to re-focus global attention on the needs of the poor.
To a surprising extent, it worked. Aid flows have recovered, much poor-country debt has been forgiven, and there have been startling success stories like Tanzania, where the literacy rate has jumped from 52 percent to 98 percent since 1991.
Even more important than the aid was the fact that the great powers stopped backing rulers in the developing countries who oppressed and stole from their own people. Once those thugs had been important, because they kept their countries on the right side in the Cold War. Afterward, the West didn’t care whether they survived or not—and many of them didn’t.
Better leadership and cleaner politics account for much of the improvement, especially in parts of Africa. Ghana, for example, has cut the rate of child malnutrition in half since 1990. Some MDG targets, like halving the number of people in the world without access to clean water by 2015, would be met even without the “High-Level Plenary Meeting” in New York this month that is intended to re-energize the process.
The greatest decline in poverty has been in China and India, home to over half of the very poor people in the world, where high economic growth rates rather than foreign aid have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Hundreds of millions of others have been left behind, of course, but the glass is definitely half full, not half empty.
If the story ended there, it would be an uplifting tale. For thousands of years most people everywhere lived in dire poverty and ignorance. Then one group, the Europeans, discovered technologies and ways of doing things that made them unimaginably rich and powerful. They behaved very badly for a while, conquering everybody else in the world, but that is now over, and we can all look forward to a future of prosperity and equality.
It sounds naive when you put it so baldly, but that is really the notion that lies behind things like the Millenium goals. It is certainly not an ignoble ambition, and 10 years ago it seemed almost attainable. Today it seems much less so.
The problem is not the current economic slump. That is cutting into living standards in many places, but even if it lasts for years it is essentially a transient event. The real worm of doubt is the gradual realization that seven billion human beings cannot all live the current lifestyle of the billion richest without causing an environmental and ecological catastrophe. It is inherently unsustainable.
Clean water, literacy, and healthy children do no harm by themselves, but that is just a waystation on the path to a full “developed” style of life. We do not really imagine that the billions of poor should or will accept a permanent existence as healthier, more literate peasants who still live lightly upon the earth. They will demand the whole package, and it will be the ruination of us all.
Even one billion people consuming resources and producing pollution at the current rate may be unsustainable over a period of more than a generation or two. Seven or eight billion people living like that would be unsustainable even over a couple of decades: global warming and resource depletion would swiftly overwhelm our emerging global civilization and its high aspirations.
Yet that is the road we have put ourselves on, because maintaining the gulf between the relatively few rich and the many poor is morally offensive and politically impossible. Rich really is better than poor, in the sense that people who are physically secure and have some freedom of choice in their lives are generally happier people. But we have to do a serious re-think about how we define the concept of rich.