|The lost decade
They were promised a brighter future, but in the 1990s the world's poor
fell further behind
Larry Elliott, economics editor
Wednesday July 9, 2003/The Guardian [U.K.]
The widening gulf between the global haves and have-nots was starkly
revealed last night when the United Nations announced that while the
United States was booming in the 1990s more than 50 countries suffered
falling living standards.
The UN's annual human development report charted increasing poverty for
more than a quarter of the world's countries, where a lethal combination
of famine, HIV/Aids, conflict and failed economic policies have turned
the clock back.
Highlighting the setbacks endured by sub-Saharan Africa and the nations
that emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of the
cold war, the UN called for urgent action to meet its millennium
development goals for 2015. These include a halving of the number of
people living on less than a dollar a day, a two-thirds drop in
mortality for the under fives, universal primary education and a halving
of those without access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation.
The report said the 1990s had seen a drop from 30% to 23% in the number
of people globally living on less than a dollar a day, but the
improvement had largely been the result of the progress in China and
India, the world's two most populous countries.
Despite some sporadic successes such as Ghana and Senegal, there was
little hope of Africa meeting the UN's 2015 development goals; on
current trends it would be 2147 before the poorest countries in the
poorest continent halved poverty and 2165 before child mortality was cut
by two thirds. Thirty of the 34 countries classified by the UN as "low
human development" are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Taking issue with those who have argued that the "tough love" policies
of the past two decades have spawned the growth of a new global middle
class, the report says the world became ever more divided between the
super-rich and the desperately poor.
The richest 1% of the world's population (around 60 million) now receive
as much income as the poorest 57%, while the income of the richest 25
million Americans is the equivalent of that of almost 2 billion of the
world's poorest people. In 1820, western Europe's per capita income was
three times that of Africa's; by the 1990s it was more than 13 times as
In Norway, top of the UN's league table for human development, life
expectancy at birth is 78.7 years, there is 100% literacy and annual
income is just under $30,000 (about ?18,200). At the other end of the
scale, a newborn child in Sierra Leone will be lucky to reach its 35th
birthday, has a two in three chance of growing up illiterate and would
have an income of $470 a year.
Overall human development, measured by the UN as an amalgam of income,
life expectancy and literacy, fell in 21 countries during the 1990s. By
contrast, only four countries suffered falling human development in the
"Though average incomes have risen and fallen over time, human
development has historically shown sustained improvement, especially
when measured by the human development index. But the 1990s saw
unprecedented stagnation, with the HDI falling in 21 countries.
"Much of the decline in the 1990s can be traced to the spread of
HIV/AIDS, which lowered life expectancies, and to a collapse in incomes,
particularly in the commonwealth of independent states."
The UN said the events of September 11 had created a "genuine consensus"
that poverty was the world's problem, but urged the west to abandon the
one-size-fits-all liberalisation agenda foisted on poor nations.
Mark Malloch-Brown, administrator of the UN development programme, said
many countries in Africa and Latin America held up as examples of how to
kick-start development were among the stragglers in the global economy.
"The poster children of the 1990s are among those who didn't do terribly
well. There are structural restraints on development. Market reforms are
not enough. You can't just liberalise; you need an interventionist
The report added that: "Over the past 20 years too much development
thinking and practice have confused market-based economic growth with
The west needed to tear down trade barriers, dismantle its lavish
subsidy regimes, provide deeper debt relief and double aid from $50bn to
$100bn a year. This would provide the resources for investment in the
building blocks of development - health, education, clean water and
"Poor countries cannot afford to wait until they are wealthy before they
invest in their people", said Jeffrey Sachs, special adviser to Kofi
Annan on the UN millennium development goals.
Economic growth alone would not rescue the world from poverty, the
report said. "Without addressing issues like malnutrition and illiteracy
that are both causes and symptoms of poverty, the goals will not be met.
The statistics today are shaming: more than 13 million children have
died through diarrhoeal disease in the past decade. Each year, over half
a million women, one for every minute of the day, die in pregnancy and
childbirth. More than 800 million suffer from malnutrition."
It added: "For many countries the 1990s were a decade of despair. Some
54 countries are poorer now than in 1990. In 21, a larger proportion is
going hungry. In 14, more children are dying before age five. In 12,
primary school enrolments are shrinking. In 34, life expectancy has
fallen. Such reversals in survival were previously rare."
Matthew Lockwood, head of UK Advocacy Team, ActionAid, said: "The
shocking truth is that the poor are getting poorer.
"Leaders, in rich and poor countries alike, are not taking poverty
seriously enough. You don't solve this problem by making the leaders of
poor countries accountable to their rich-country counterparts. They need
to be accountable to their own citizens. Poor people must have a voice."
Where living standards fell between 1990 and 2001
Central African Republic
Congo, Dem. Rep. of the
Micronesia, Fed. Sts.
Moldova, Rep. of
Occupied Palestinian Territory
Sao Tome and Principe
United Arab Emirates
Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002