Amidst all the bad news from Syria and the Middle East, three amazing new datapoints show that economic development in the global South has legs. Economies are working better, governments have learned lessons, and the international community is far more effective than in the past at helping very poor countries claw their way out of poverty.
The first datapoint is a new report from the World Bank about the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty, defined as less that $1.25 per day (in today’s dollars). In 27 years from 1981 to 2008, the ranks of the extreme poor fell from more than half the world population to less than a quarter. The lion’s share of this dramatic progress has come in China, where economic growth of about 10 percent annually has been sustained over these three decades, with the result that extreme poverty fell from 84 percent to 13 percent. Meanwhile in the world’s poorest region, sub-Saharan Africa, the rate had increased in the 1990s but fell from 56 to 48 percent just in 2002-2008.
In the past few years of economic turmoil and recession in the global North, the big countries of the South (China, India, Brazil) have kept growing robustly. This has kept commodity prices relatively high, unlike most past recessions in which lower demand forces prices down. The higher commodity prices favor exporting countries throughout the global South (as well as Russia, notably). Despite the recession in the North, and high food prices that have hurt the poor in the past few years, the World Bank preliminary data show the decline in extreme poverty continuing unabated through 2010. Charles Kenny argues that the World Bank data are actually too pessimistic — things are getting better even faster than reported. And the spread of technology like cell phones into poor countries is accelerating the progress.
Ten years ago the UN adopted Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to assess progress in economic development and the provision of basic human needs in the global South. The first of the eight goals is to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015 relative to 1990 levels. I figured it was an ambitious goal that we’d get halfway to, and that was probably good enough. Instead the world has met the goal in full, five years early. As I said, “amazing.”
Another MDG is to cut in half the number of people worldwide without access to safe drinking water, relative to 1990s when one quarter of humanity lacked that access. A new report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the 2010 number at 11 percent of the world — again meeting the MDG five years ahead of schedule, and again amazing. It translates to billions of people getting safer water over the past twenty years.
The third datapoint is a series of reports and findings in recent months that add up to tremendous progress in improving health in poor countries. For years UNICEF has promoted low-cost methods of saving children from preventable deaths, especially from disease. UNICEF says it is “off track” in meeting the MDG to reduce child mortality by two-thirds, and other MDGs such as sanitation also lag behind schedule (African leaders meet today to review progress on the MDGs). But sub-Saharan Africa’s under-five mortality rate still dropped by almost a quarter from 1990 to 2008. Maternal mortality has also made progress, though mostly outside Africa, in the past two decades.
Vaccination campaigns (boosted by the Gates Foundation’s efforts) have made relentless progress against measles, polio, and TB. “Measles vaccination resulted in a 78% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2008 worldwide,” reports the WHO. Polio is just being eradicated entirely from India, with tangible (if still a bit elusive) prospects of eliminating the disease worldwide, following the smallpox model. Rates of tuberculosis are falling, though slowly, and the terrible setback in global health from the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been reversed, with new infections now on the decline although years of pain are still ahead with tens of millions infected globally. Finally, malaria mortality rates have fallen by a quarter worldwide in the past decade, with mosquito netting and other programs reaching more and more people.
This is more than a humanitarian success. The economic growth in the global South that underlies much of this progress, and has lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty in China alone in recent decades, is reshaping the world political economy. The list of biggest economies — total GDP measured at purchasing-power parity — now reads: USA, China, India, Japan, Germany, Russia, and Brazil (which, at $2.3 trillion, has just passed the UK, France, and Italy which occupy spots 8-10 on the list). In other words, the global South now accounts for two of the top three, and three of the top seven, economies in the world. Small wonder that the old G7 (with four from Europe, two from North America, and Japan) has all but retired in favor of the G20 with representatives of the South.
Good news never seems to get as much attention as violence and disaster, so perhaps we should not be surprised that the monumental progress in reducing poverty made it only to the bottom of p.4 in today’s New York Times. As for the great report on safe drinking water, well there it is in the last paragraph of that story on p.4 about the World Bank poverty report. And the progress in public health worldwide does not seem to be newsworthy at all. But it really is.