Motivation plan that worked

2010-09-21 00:00

“I’VE been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” It may have been Ella Fitz­gerald who first said that, or maybe it was Sophie Tucker. Doesn’t matter. It’s true, other things being equal — but “other things” are not equal.

On September 20 to September 22, while the United Nations General Assembly is holding its annual meeting in New York, most of the world’s leaders will come together to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals that the UN adopted 10 years ago. All the anti-poverty campaigners will claim that change has been too little and too slow, but actually it hasn’t been bad at all.

Measured against the real state of the poorest countries in the late 20th century and not against some impossible dream of a perfect world, there have been major improvements in key areas like literacy, access to clean water and infant mortality. A great deal of the progress has been due to the efforts of the poor countries themselves, but there have been big changes in the behaviour of the rich countries too.

Back in the sixties, seventies and eighties, most aid to developing countries was driven by the competition for global influence in the Cold War, so when that confrontation suddenly ended in 1989-90, the rich countries’ main motive for giving aid vanished. The nineties were a miserable time when the flow of aid virtually dried up, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of 2000 were an attempt to refocus global attention on the needs of the poor.

To a surprising extent, it worked. Aid flows have recovered, much poor-country debt has been forgiven, and there have been startling success stories like Tanzania, where the literacy rate has jumped from 52% to 98% since 1991.

The greatest decline in poverty has been in China and India, home to over half of the very poor people in the world, where high economic growth rates rather than foreign aid have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Hundreds of millions of others have been left behind, of course, but the glass is definitely half full, not half empty.

If the story ended there, it would be an uplifting tale. For thousands of years most people everywhere lived in dire poverty and ignorance. Then one group, the Europeans, discovered technologies and ways of doing things that made them unimaginably rich and powerful. They behaved very badly for a while, conquering everybody else in the world, but that is now over, and we can all look forward to a future of prosperity and equality.

It sounds naive when you put it so baldly, but that is really the notion that lies behind things like the Millenium Goals. It is certainly not an ignoble ambition, and 10 years ago it seemed almost attainable. Today it seems much less so.

The problem is not the current economic slump. That is cutting into living standards in many places, but even if it lasts for years it is essentially a transient event. The real worm of doubt is the gradual realisation that seven billion human beings cannot all live the current lifestyle of the billion richest without causing an environmental and ecological catastrophe. It is inherently unsustainable.

Clean water, literacy and healthy children do no harm by themselves, but that is just a way-station on the path to a full “developed” style of life. We do not really imagine that the billions of poor should or will accept a permanent existence as healthier, more literate peasants who still live lightly upon the Earth. They will demand the whole package, and it will be the ruination of us all.

Even one billion people consuming resources and producing pollution at the current rate may be unsustainable over a period of more than a generation or two. Seven or eight billion people living like that would be unsustainable even over a couple of decades: global warming and resource depletion would swiftly overwhelm our emerging global civilisation and its high aspirations.

Yet that is the road we have put ourselves on, because maintaining the gulf between the relatively few rich and the many poor is morally offensive and politically impossible. Rich really is better than poor, in the sense that people who are physically secure and have some freedom of choice in their lives are generally happier people. But we have to do a serious rethink about how we define the concept of rich.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
0 comments
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

 
/Sport

Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
Traffic
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.