On the whole, people are leading healthier lives

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2011, 12:00am


In some important ways, perhaps a majority of the people in the developing world live a better life than did the rich of 400 or even 200 years ago in Europe and North America. According to Charles Kenny in his new book, Getting Better, all but a handful of poorer countries are concerned about improving the quality of life of their citizens: 'Even the most corrupt and inefficient governments of Africa are providing services of a quality and extent far in advance of any country in the world prior to the Industrial Revolution.'

Smallpox has been eradicated. So has river blindness, the scourge of parts of Africa. Polio is down to its last 1,000 or so cases. The scourge of leprosy has all but disappeared. Antibiotics are widely available. Anti-malarial nets are spreading fast throughout Africa. Infant mortality is way down.

Sierra Leone, the country with the highest rate of infant mortality in the world, has a rate that is only 2 per cent higher than what prevailed in the US a century ago.

Progress is almost universal in Africa; the percentage of Africans who could read and write doubled between 1970 and 1999, from fewer than one-third to two-thirds of the adult population. Today it is very much higher.

None of all this progress shows up in national income statistics. Nevertheless, Africans can point with pride to the gross domestic product of many African countries - they are today growing by over 5 per cent a year, many at 7 per cent and a handful at around 9 per cent.

Other parts of the world have also shown dramatic progress. Between 1962 and 2002, life expectancy in the Middle East and North Africa jumped from 48 years to 69 - the biggest increase of any region in the world. One can talk about tyranny, corruption, lack of human rights and too much bureaucracy but, in fact, when it comes to the essentials of life, progress has been rapid.

The UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the world population living on less than US$1 a day between 1990 and 2015 is on track to be met, according to the UN. The poverty rate in developing regions dropped from 46 per cent in 1990 to 27 per cent in 2005, mainly due to the progress in India and China.

Alas, many observers seem blinded to much of this. They prefer to focus on the growing inequality between income groups. Yes, in countries such as India, China, Kenya and Nigeria, the differential has grown fast. But, in Brazil, it has been seriously narrowed. And some African nations are seeing the gap closing.

For the poor, however, what matters is their health and that their children should not die, not necessarily the pursuit of equality. There is a long, long way to go. But we should be very happy about the progress made.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist