Forget What You Think You Know: Life Is Getting Better for the World's Poorest
Not long ago, I was pitching a big magazine on a story about a new development that might play a major role in resolving the Darfur crisis. Word came back that it was an unlikely sell; the editor in chief, I was told, just thought of “Africa” as one giant, depressing, intractable problem and wasn’t interested in hearing about it.
You don’t often hear it stated so bluntly, but that general reaction is pretty typical when it comes to news about the developing world. To many Americans, the countries of Africa, southern Asia, and much of Latin America seem like hopeless swamps of poverty, disease, and incomprehensible wars. That’s not too surprising, considering that we generally only hear about those places in the media when there are particularly shocking surges of poverty, disease, and incomprehensible wars. Famine in Ethiopia, AIDS in southern Africa, fighting in Afghanistan—that’s the stuff that gets developing countries into American headlines.
But beyond those headlines is a much bigger story. It’s this: All across the developing world, things are getting much better. From El Salvador to India, from Nigeria to Nepal, the last two decades have seen historically unprecedented gains in almost every significant measure of human well-being, from the number of people getting enough to eat to the number of kids going to school. There’s still way too much poverty, sickness, and suffering, of course. Nonetheless, in many ways, the world’s poor are better off than ever. Here at TakePart World and on TakePart Live, our sister show on Pivot, we’re aiming to cover that story.
Start with children. In the early 1990s, some 12 million kids under age five were dying every year, mostly thanks to preventable diseases. Today, that figure has been cut in half. (You can see the numbers in each country on this interactive map.) The number of women who die giving birth and the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty were also cut in half over that period. Malnutrition, illiteracy, and other chronic scourges of the poor are similarly in retreat in most parts of the world.
Health isn’t the only thing that’s improving. So is the ability of people in poor countries to take part in their political systems and in the wider world. At the end of the cold war, by The Economist’s count, only three African countries could be called democracies; now at least 25 come close to that title. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of people all over Africa and Asia are gaining access to the great equalizer of the 21st century: technology. There are almost as many active cell phones in Africa and India as there are people. Farmers and fishers are using them to keep abreast of local weather and market conditions. Millions of Africans are using phone-based mobile banking services to pay for everything from restaurant meals to their taxes.
One of the key issues we’ll be examining is whether and to what extent foreign aid has been part of this astonishing wave of progress. Over the last four decades alone, developing countries have taken in some $2 trillion in aid. What, if anything, has been the payoff? It’s a big and hotly debated question.
Clearly, foreign aid can’t take credit for all, or even most, of the economic headway of recent decades. The breakneck growth of China, India, and other once impoverished countries has lifted more people out of poverty in a shorter time than ever in human history. Capitalism, it seems, may be the most effective poverty-fighting program yet invented.
Aid comes in for a lot of criticism, and not without reason. It’s easy to find examples of programs that failed utterly. Sometimes aid is stolen. During the cold war, millions of aid dollars wound up in the pockets of pro-American dictators from Latin America to Africa instead of going to help their long-suffering people. Sometimes it’s wasted. Generators given to power slum neighborhoods break down because no one provides spare parts to maintain them. Laptops gather dust in rural schools because their donors didn't realize the locals have no electricity. Sometimes it benefits the givers more than the receivers. According to U.K.-based Development Initiatives, billions of dollars in official assistance every year are spent on goods and services in the donor countries themselves.
Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, aid even backfires. Giving away boatloads of food can wipe out the market for local farmers' crops, bankrupting them. Worse, aid can fuel conflict. Rival militias battle each other to snatch donated food. Aid to refugees fleeing Rwanda in the mid-1990s ended up subsidizing rebel Hutu fighters.
Aid, however, has also undeniably helped, in some places, in some circumstances, and in some really big ways. The Green Revolution spearheaded by Norman Borlaug, an agricultural scientist backed by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, brought new strains of high-yielding wheat and rice, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and other modern agricultural techniques to many poor countries in the 1960s and 1970s, enormously boosting their food production. The Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunizations, launched in 2000 by several governments, international organizations, and foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which, you should know, supports TakePart World), has immunized more than 370 million children in 77 countries against a range of diseases. “The biggest success of development,” writes economist Charles Kenny, “has not been making people richer but, rather, has been making the things that really matter—things like health and education—cheaper and more widely available. It is the invention and spread of technology and ideas that have, literally, reduced the cost of living.”
Despite all the progress of recent years, there’s still a long way to go. Billions of people are still acutely poor, hundreds of millions don’t get enough to eat, and millions of children die every year from diseases that have been virtually eliminated in wealthy countries.
The good news is that all over the world, scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs, activists, and yes, aid workers are working to find new ways to beat down poverty—and finding more success than most people realize. We’ll be reporting from the frontlines of that struggle, looking for what works, what doesn’t, and what we can learn from both.