The narrowing gap

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 January, 2011, 12:00am

A person born in the African country of Niger can expect to live 26 fewer years, to have nine fewer years of education and to consume 54 times fewer goods than a person born in Denmark. For many of us, this is our image of Africa and, indeed, much of the Third World.

Why is it that the press only report the trains that arrive late and the planes that crash? Bad news is their daily diet. The truth is that an overwhelming majority of poor Third World countries are on an upward trajectory. In sub-Saharan Africa, the average growth rate these days is 6 per cent and, for some countries, it is above 8 per cent. By any standards, this is a remarkable rate of growth. But national income growth doesn't paint the whole picture.

The United Nations Development Programme each year publishes the Human Development Index (HDI), the brainchild of the Indian Nobel laureate for economics, Amatya Sen, and the Pakistani economist, the late Mahbub ul Haq. The index gives a more rounded picture of what is going on in developing countries. Not just measuring the change of income, it quantifies infant mortality rates, longevity, levels of education and the position of women. In sum, all the elements of life that really count for most people.

The fastest rate of growth in the index has been in East Asia and the Pacific, followed by South Asia and the much maligned Arab states. All but three of the 135 countries for whom there are reliable statistics have a higher level of human development than they did in 1970. The three exceptions are: Zimbabwe, under the greedy, totalitarian rule of Robert Mugabe; Zambia, which never found an alternative route to development once the copper price fell; and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been immersed in continuous war for decades.

Still, these excuses don't explain everything. Guatemala, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world, is one of the better performers.

The big surprise is that Oman and Saudi Arabia lead a region that has made major strides, with eight Arab states featuring among the world's top 20 movers. Overall, Oman, China, Nepal, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia made the biggest improvement over the past 40 years.

In fact, these successes in HDI growth don't usually correlate with great success in income growth. South Korea and Indonesia are two exceptions, with growth in both income and non-income indicators.

One popular refrain among economists is that, for all their sweat, developing countries are not catching up with the developed countries. For every step they take forward, the Western advanced countries take two steps. Even China, the world's fastest-growing economy, cannot play catch-up.

But for the people of these countries, income is partially irrelevant. For them what matters is: is their everyday life improving? Is their health and nourishment improving? Is their wife less likely to die in child birth? Will their children live through childhood? How long will they live and will their children get a good education? On all these, the gap is closing and at a pretty fast rate.

Consider life expectancy. Someone born in the African country of Gambia in 1970 could expect to live to the age of 41 - some 33 years fewer than someone born in Norway. By last year, life expectancy in Gambia had increased by 16 years, to 57, but in Norway by only 7 years. Thus, while the gap between Gambia and Norway remains large, it has shrunk. If present trends continue, the gap will close even faster.

There are a handful of countries that in the past decade have slipped back in their life expectancy - Russia, probably because of alcoholism among men, and Zambia and Zimbabwe because of unusually bad leadership. Surprisingly, China has slipped back in the enrolment of its schoolchildren. Another 10 countries have stagnated.

Just taking health, there have been dramatic reversals in health in 19 countries (but only containing 6 per cent of the world's population, a more revealing measure). HIV has taken a bad toll in Africa and so has alcoholism and bad management in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

There is much to celebrate. Without the gains, 6.7 million more children would be dying every year. In fact, mortality in the developing countries has declined four times as fast as in developed countries. The poor countries have a long way to go but steadily they are getting there. For the most part, the trains are on time, and even picking up speed.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist