The Poor Can be Helped

by Janadas Devan, April 2, 2005

We have heard the mantra: Foreign development aid doesn't work.  It's money down the drain. Most ends up in the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt dictators.  Give a starving man fish, and you'll assuage his hunger; teach him to fish... etc, etc.

What is the truth?  Well, consider these facts, detailed in Professor Jeffrey Sachs' The End Of Poverty: Paul Ehrlich predicted in his 1968 classic, The Population Bomb, that India would never be able to feed itself.  It is not only doing precisely that now, but has also become a food exporter - thanks to Dr Norman Borlaug; the high-yielding, short-strawed, disease-resistant wheat strain he discovered; international aid agencies and foundations that helped introduce this new strain in the Third World; and the ensuing 'green revolution' in India, Mexico and elsewhere. 

India produced only 11 million tonnes of wheat in 1960.  It produced 24 million tonnes in 1970, 36 million in 1980 and 55 million in 1990, a rate of growth in food production that far outstripped its rate of population growth.

As recently as 1967, smallpox struck 10 to 15 million people annually, killing 1.5 to two million of them.  Thanks to a worldwide vaccination drive the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched that year, the world is today free of smallpox.  A similar vaccination drive against polio, launched by the WHO in 1988, has virtually eradicated that disease too.  Only 784 polio cases were reported worldwide in 2003, compared to 350,000 in 1988.

In 1982, Unicef launched its Campaign for Child Survival. It involved a package of measures, ranging from breastfeeding for nutrition to immunisation against six childhood diseases: tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, polio and measles.  The campaign achieved 80 per cent coverage in dozens of poor countries, and was estimated to have saved at least 12 million lives by the end of the decade.

A more recent effort, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, launched in 2000 with a US$750 million (S$1.24 billion) gift from Bill Gates, achieved similar results.  As of last year, the alliance has vaccinated 41.6 million children against hepatitis B, 5.6 million against haemophilus influenza type B, 3.2 million against yellow fever and 9.6 million other children with other basic vaccines.

Despite these efforts, more than eight million people around the world die every year simply 'because they are too poor to stay alive'.  As Prof Sachs notes, newspapers can report every day that 'more than 20,000 people perished yesterday of extreme poverty', and not be wrong.  About 8,000 of them are children, killed by malaria. 

The vast majority of these deaths occur among the world's 'extremely poor', the 1.1 billion or so who live on less than US$1 a day.  They are chronically hungry, lack access to health care or education, lack safe drinking water or sanitation, and, more often than not, are without shelter.  Another 1.5 billion are 'moderately poor', defined as those living on US$1 to US$2 a day.  They have access to basic needs, but only barely. 

Together, the extremely poor and the moderately poor make up 40 per cent of humanity.  The proportion was much higher as recently as 1981, when an estimated 1.5 billion people lived in extreme poverty.

The reduction in global poverty was largely due to Asia's phenomenal economic growth, which reduced the extreme poor in East Asia from 58 per cent in 1981 to 15 per cent in 2001, and in South Asia from 52 to 31 per cent.

So the question naturally arises: If East Asia could do it, why not Africa?  Almost half of Africa's population lives in extreme poverty, 'a proportion that has actually grown worse over the past two decades as the rest of the world has grown more prosperous', as Prof Sachs notes.  The usual explanations are familiar: African countries have corrupt governments; they are not democratic; their people lack certain pro-growth cultural attributes; they lack property rights; and so on and so forth.

There is a measure of truth in each of these assertions, but they do not explain, singly or collectively, why Africa is different.

Take, for instance, the democracy argument.  If lack of democracy explains African poverty, a similar lack ought to have kept most of East Asia poor too.  And yet, almost all the East Asian economies that registered spectacular growth in the second half of the 20th century - South Korea, Taiwan and China among them - did so without the aid of regular elections.

Or take the cultural argument.  As Prof Sachs notes, the same argument has been used in the past to explain why societies that are now prosperous would never become so.  Max Weber, for example, early in the 20th century, cited the individualist, entrepreneurial spirit of Protestantism as the reason why northern Europe was more developed than Catholic southern Europe.  He also argued that East Asia's Confucian heritage would render the region incapable of achieving economic growth.  Catholic Ireland and Italy now have higher per capita incomes than Protestant Britain; while Confucian China is set to become the world's largest economy within 50 years. So much for culture as destiny.

Prof Sachs' point is not that good governance or the rule of law, free markets or sound macroeconomic policies, have nothing to do with economic growth.  They obviously do.  His point is that the failure of some countries to grow as rapidly as others 'is the result of a complex mix of factors, some geographical, some historical and some political'.

Many poor countries, especially in Africa, face 'special obstacles and hardships: diseases such as malaria, drought-prone climates in locations not suitable for irrigation, extreme isolation in mountains and landlocked regions, an absence of energy resources such as coal, gas and oil'.

The point is poverty is not the fault of the poor.  The point is development aid, carefully planned and intelligently targeted, can alleviate poverty.  The point is the poor need not always be with us.

Straits Times

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Posted April 4, 2005