Is the World going to hell in a handbasket? (The etymology of this goes back to Revolutionary France in the eighteenth century when guillotined heads fell into a conveniently placed basket.)
No, it is not, despite Covid and despite the world-wide unsettling, brought about by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As we stand, a quarter way through the twenty-first century, we can say that never in the history of mankind have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast, for the better. We have to take the long view. The last three years, I suggest, will come to be seen as a blip.
The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain, took 150 years to double its output. The US which industrialised later, took 50 years. Both countries had a population of less than 10 million when they industrialised. Today China and India with populations over a billion each have doubled their output in less than 20 years- and many other developing countries have done as well.
According to the UN's Human Development Report- which everyone should read online- it is more exciting than most novels- reports that by 2050 Brazil, China and India will account for 40% of the world's output. The combined incomes of eight developing countries- Brazil, Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey- already equals that of the USA. Their success is boosting the fortunes of many of the poorer countries, not least in Africa, because of higher levels of trade, investment and capital inflows.
The most important engine of growth of the developing Third World is their own domestic markets. The middle class is growing at a pace like never before. Within a dozen years the Third World will account for three-fifths of the 1 billion households earning more than $20,000 a year. Between 1990 and today the Third World’s share of the world's middle-class population expanded from 28% to 58%. Even in the poorer parts of India or Africa mobile phones, motorbikes and contraceptives are fairly common. Total phone sales are up to over 500 million in Africa- and climbing steadily. In South Africa 90% of adults have mobile phones. In Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya one-third of adults have smart phones, connecting them to the internet and to mankind’s store of knowledge at the press of a few fingers. In China smart phones users total 865 million. In India it is 750 million. (In the US it is 240 million.) No bloody revolution could alter the access to information, education and equality of opportunity as has the mobile phone.
International trade has rocketed. Not just China with its massive amounts of cheap exports but also the likes of Thailand with its exports of parts and components in the auto and electronics industries, Kenya which has cornered much of the fresh flower market in Europe and Brazil with its aircraft industry.
There has been much improvement in the lot of the world's poor, not just in income per head but in infant and maternal mortality, disease, education, the provision of fresh water and sewerage which are, in my opinion, more important than incomes. According to UNICEF (the UN’s Children Fund), last year there was progress in these areas in 126 countries, despite the world’s major economic troubles and setbacks. Improvements in health, Covid apart, continued. The massive and fast-expanding Indian pharmaceutical industry continues to make drugs and medicines ever cheaper for other developing countries to import.
By the conventional measure of poverty- national income per head- the number of people in extreme poverty has fallen from 43% of the world’s population twenty years ago to less than 10% today. In China alone 500 million people have been lifted out of poverty and the government last year claimed that it had abolished extreme poverty. The World Bank recently said that India had cut its extreme poverty by half. The Millennium Development goal of halving the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day relative to 1990 was met five years before the target date. The Economist magazine estimates that extreme poverty will fall by 2030 to a mere 3% of the total developing world population.
Covid put a temporary stop to many, but not all, these improvements. UNICEF reckons that there are 100 million more children reduced to poverty. It will take seven years, it says, to regain the previous downward momentum. Its State of the World’s Children Report says that in 1980 10% of children born that year died from preventable causes; by 2018 it was 3% and, until Covid, appeared to be falling faster and further. UNICEF wants to see that momentum regained. In 2021, there was one good trend: there were fewer girls being pressured into forced marriage.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the global homicide rate is going down and the number of conflict-related fatalities has decreased. Since the end of the Cold War the number of wars (overwhelmingly civil wars) has fallen sharply, albeit in the last three years it has increased again, although, relative to the Cold War years, not by much.
The latest edition of the Global Peace Index, devised by the authoritative Australian Institute for Economy and Peace, reports that last year 126 countries became more peaceful. Only 37 countries became less so, including the United States. Some highly respected scholars and political commentators believe the US is entering a period of violent political upheaval. Europe (excluding Russia and Ukraine) is the most peaceful part of the world. The largest steps forward in finding peace have been taken in Uzbekistan, Georgia, Armenia, Cote d’Ivoire and Kazakhstan. But Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Sudan and Libya remain the most violent countries.
One thing rarely noted is that many developing countries have crime rates a good deal lower that the US and not too far behind Europe's. Indeed, the Muslim Arab countries have a better record than most of Europe. (In contrast, a large majority of the Christian countries of Africa and, even more so, Latin America have bad crime rates.)
A black spot in our world is the setback to democracy and the increase in violations of international humanitarian law. New York-based Freedom House, which monitors these developments, tells in its latest annual report how after the Cold War ended the number of countries that became democratic shot up. But in recent years there has been a steady decline. Last year 38% of the world’s population was “not free”. (Arguably, this figure distorts the picture as it includes China with its mammoth population.
The US has been slipping down Freedom House’s rankings’ table for years. Now its position has dropped precipitously. The country that still likes to think of itself as the leader of the free world has, in Donald Trump, an ex-president who, faced with electoral defeat, charged up a crowd to violently storm the Capitol in an attempt to pressure Congress to overturn the result. Just when it’s needed, the US has lost any credibility when it criticises other countries for falling short in in their democratic and human rights practices.
Until Covid, Africa, once the backwater of development, had started steadily to move ahead. Before Covid the region was growing at 5% a year and that's an average. Many countries, such as Tanzania, grew at over 7%- the rate of the Asian “tigers”. The number of violent conflicts was falling. Africa had six out of the world's top ten fastest growing countries. A lot of it was due to the boom in commodity buying- everything from bananas and sisal to iron ore and oil- in particular by China. But growth was also strong in those countries which rely on a more diversified economy and agriculture. Even net importing countries, such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda, continued to grow fast. During the Great Recession of 2008-9, thanks to sound fiscal and monetary management, growth was only marginally affected. At the moment, the war in Ukraine and the legacy of the Covid-induced near recessions in the developed countries, seem to be reducing growth and increasing inflation. Even so, there is a caveat. National income statistics in Africa can be unreliable. I prefer to judge increased economic activity by the number of motorbikes I see on the road! The number of these has jumped and jumped. The rate of increase has been nothing short of incredible, even in the last three years.
Fortunately, apart from South Africa, Africa has escaped the worse of Covid. However, it is still hurt as its markets in the West and China have shrunk. As Covid has ebbed, supply chain problems have brought a slowdown in imports. Moreover, thanks to a spreading insurgency led by militant Islamic groups, development in Nigeria and the Sahel region, economic growth is being severely set back in a number of countries because political stability and economic activity are being undermined.
What's my message? Don’t depend for your information on the fickle eye of television. Nor on an under-motivated and often ill-informed press. Dig for the true facts about the Third World and, like me, you will be surprised, often happily so. We do live in difficult times and there are always problems looming over the horizon, but the prospects, judging on past trends and performance, are good.