THE NORTH-SOUTH AFFLUENCE GAP

CONFERENCE STATEMENT: THE PROBLEM: Per capita gross national product (GNP) has been the traditional means of measuring national progress. The goal of raising per capita GNP has guided international development programs. Such programs have failed. The gap between rich and poor countries has grown, and within many countries the gap between rich and poor groups has widened. Absolute poverty has increased.

Development efforts can be refocused to address human well-being more directly. Data increasingly available can be used to provide more useful measuring criteria. These must include clear, easily understood descriptions of the human condition so that programs can be designed and improvement in the human condition can be easily assessed and compared from nation to nation.

GLOBAL economic development simply isn't working. That's a stark assessment. But that's where Rodrigo Botero begins his analysis of the yawning gulf that separates the wealthy, consumer-oriented industrial nations from the impoverished, developing nations.

``If I were to make one recommendation for the the year 2000,'' says Mr. Botero, a journalist, author, and former finance minister of Colombia, ``it would be simply to drop the goal of closing the gap - understood as it has been understood in the past 30 years.''

That last phrase is crucial. Botero wants the gap closed. He's not arguing for the status quo. Nor is he calling for ``zero growth'' economies. Instead, he's seeking a new method of measurement.

Traditionally, the gap between North and South, the developed and the developing world, has been measured in a number of ways. The commonest is by charting gross national product (GNP) per capita. This measure shows the breadth of the gap in no uncertain terms: According to World Bank figures for 1985, the United States has a GNP per capita of $16,690, while Ethiopia (for example) has $110.

But there are other ways to assess the differences in well-being among the world's nations:

Population. In 1950, one-third of the world's people lived in industrialized nations. By the early decades of the 21st century, that number will be less than one-sixth, as population pressures intensify in the developing world.

Age. In the large group of developing nations that lie within the tropics, says Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden, an average of 40 percent of the population is under 15. The corresponding figure for industrial nations: 22 percent. Result: a built-in certainty of much more rapid growth rates in the tropics, as this young population reaches child-bearing age.

Poverty. The World Bank estimates that about 40 percent of the 2.7 billion people in tropical and subtropical regions outside China live in absolute poverty - unable to count on adequate food, clothing, and shelter from day to day. In those regions, according to UNICEF, more than 14 million children under age 5 starve to death or die of disease each year.

Delivery of services. Despite some cases of positive rates of growth in per capita income, many countries are falling behind in meeting the demand for clean water, adequate nutrition, education, medical services, and transportation and communication. Fewer and fewer children are going to school in Nigeria, reports Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, that country's former head of state. ``More people are not able to go to hospital because there are no facilities, no drugs, in the hospital,'' he says. ``All these things are going down, and then we are told that GNP is going up.''

That point is an example of what Botero calls ``an idea that led us in the wrong direction'' - the idea that the growth of per capita GNP measures real development.

For the last four decades, he says, the industrial world's answer to the challenges of global development has been the same: money. ``Well-intentioned, intelligent people looked at the [developing] world and said, `If the conditions are set whereby they're supplied with the necessary capital, then the rest will follow.''' As a result, he notes, a developing nation's progress was usually measured by charting per capita GNP.

The result has been bitter disappointment on the part of many developing nations - not simply because their lot has not improved, but because the promised goal of narrowing the differences in income among the world's people appears unreachable.

If GNP is the only measure of progress, says former World Bank president Robert McNamara, ``it's absolutely impossible - mathematically and economically - to significantly close the gap [for most nations] within the next 50 years. There's no way.''

Estimates based on World Bank figures confirm his point: If current rates of growth continue, the closing of the income gap with the industrial nations would take Thailand 365 years, China 2,900 years, and Mauritania 3,224 years.

Yet there are bright spots in the picture. In China, Sri Lanka, and the Indian state of Kerala, for example, per capita GNP is still low by Western standards. But other indicators - infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy, nutrition, employment, numbers living in poverty - show real progress.

Such indicators, in fact, may provide sounder measures of a developing nation's progress than per capita GNP. They chart what Botero calls ``levels of human welfare, levels of well-being, that are relatively simple [and] not necessarily ethnocentric - [in that] they don't necessarily imply the values of one society.''

For many developing nations, that centuries-old question of values remains a crucial one. The very kind of development that could lift them out of poverty might also destroy their cultures and traditions. Nazir Ahmad, a graduate student from Bangladesh, warns against ``an element of interventionism'' that comes when development projects bring Western values with them. ``Maybe we need to create a little bit more isolationism in the West - to give us breathing room,'' he says.

Filmmaker Vineet Narain agrees. ``The focus of our attention should be human,'' he says. It should center on the people themselves - ``their welfare, their pleasure, their joy, and their spiritual and mental development. So far, it seems that most of the attention within the West has been on improving the material lot,'' under the mistaken assumption that ``this increases human welfare and joy.'' What is needed, he says, is ``to restore people's faith in things which are traditional.''

Kenyan Patrick Mungai notes the bad impression left by cash-heavy development projects that failed. ``We have in the third-world countries what are now popularly called `white elephant projects' - projects that have been financed by Western donors, where a lot of money has been poured in, but that can't function.''

All of which supports the case for measuring progress by something more meaningful than income. ``Lowering the infant mortality rate,'' says Botero, ``means much more to the ordinary man and woman of a developing country than obtaining an X percentage of growth in the GNP per capita, which to the majority of [those] people is an absolutely abstract and mysterious concept.''

But there is another important reason for changing the way the gap is measured: Income figures can distort the overall condition of a nation. A small country where the majority lives in poverty, but where a thin layer at the top possesses extravagant wealth, may show a high per-capita income. But that, says Botero, ``does not necessarily mean development.''

``The $12,000 of income per capita of Saudi Arabia does not mean that Saudi Arabia's a developed country,'' he adds by way of example, noting that Saudi levels of literacy, infant mortality, and life expectancy are still well below the Western standards.

The issue, then, is not one of total benefit as much as distribution of that benefit across the entire society. When a country's progress is measured by something other than wealth, the results cannot mask a lack of distribution.

``You cannot lower the infant mortality rate,'' says Botero, ``unless you offer to all of the population a minimum of medical service - instead of offering it to the 10 percent wealthy urban elite. You cannot achieve 70 years of life expectancy at birth unless you extend to all of your population, to all social classes, minimum conditions of hygiene, nutrition, education, and literacy.''

Zhang Yi, from the Institute of American Studies in Beijing, agrees - although he notes that the issue of distribution applies differently to different nations. ``For some countries,'' he says, ``where there is a high degree of wealth polarization, there should be an effort to redistribute the wealth. But in countries where there is too much equality - which I think there is in China - there should be more stratification, there should be people who should be richer.''

He also raises an issue of high concern to those seeing new measurements: whether the developing nations will embrace a different set of goals. ``You can't make the developing countries accept the goals,'' he says. Acceptance, he says, ``really depends on the internal, political interaction inside the particular country itself.''

British columnist Katharine Whitehorn agrees. ``None of [these goals] will really work unless you consider their relation to the social structure in which they are working,'' she says. The problem, she suggests, is that ``we are trying to look for something which you can measure - and most of the things that matter cannot be measured. The reason we've grasped GNP is because it's so easy to measure.''

Shifting goals, however, will take time. ``Very few developing countries are deliberately seeking these goals,'' says Botero, ``and in fact, very many of them don't even track those indicators.''

Yet for General Obasanjo, the very fact that such goals are being considered is encouraging. By searching for something other than GNP per capita as the measure, he says, ``we are admitting that we have failed in the past. I think that is significant. Up until now we were not even admitting that we had failed. I think maybe that is a beginning of success for us. Indicators [such as] wholesome drinking water, nutrition, education, health - we just cannot run away from them, because if those things are there then the absoluteness of poverty will be removed.'' Countries that do well on such indicators ``may not be wealthy, but they will not be poor.''

But is absolute wealth a necessity if these other indicators are to improve? No, says Botero, who points to countries as different as Barbados, Chile, Costa Rica, and Cuba. None has a high level of per capita GNP. They have different political systems. Yet each has reached high levels of well being as measured by literacy, infant mortality, and life expectancy.

On one point, however, there is widespread agreement: That while money is not the only answer, it's a necessary part of the solution. On that point, says Mr. McNamara, ``I think we in the developed world have failed miserably'' by not finding ways to contribute more to the progress of the developing world.

With a different set of goals, however - and the political leadership in developing countries to support them - the problem of so-called ``aid fatigue'' could be eliminated. If and when it is, however, the goal should be something other than raw wealth.

``Let us try to center them on things that are fundamental for having a decent society,'' concludes Botero, ``even if it's not rich.''

CONFERENCE STATEMENT:

ACHIEVABLE GOALS for the year 2000 While each nation must set its own goals, a developing country that achieves the following will have closed the gap with the developed world in satisfying basic needs: An infant mortality rate of less than 25 deaths per thousand live births. A population growth rate of less than 1 percent per year. An adult literacy rate of 85 percent. Life expectancy of 70 years. Meaningful employment of the greatest number possible.

HOW it could be done: Redirect the development strategies of the developing countries, as well as the policies of the bilateral and multilateral development institutions, away from primary reliance on economic factors. Design, implement, and track development programs using these new criteria. Continue to emphasize the obligations of the developed nations to help improve economic growth and overall economic performance in the developing countries. Each nation's internal development effort, as well as cooperative international efforts, should target fulfillment of the noneconomic goals. Recognize that this new way of thinking about development will require a major effort on the part of developing countries, as well as significant increases in and transfers of resources from the developed countries.

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