By Benjamin Villanti
By Benjamin Villanti
Morocco World News
New York, March 31, 2013
Earlier this month the United Nations Development Program released its 2013 Human Development Report. This year’s report focused on what it calls the “unprecedented” progress achieved among more than 40 developing countries over the last decade while identifying the common features to these impressive gains.
The UNDP report, entitled The Rise of the South, did not just attribute this success to the usual suspects of Brazil, China and India. It credits a diverse range of over 40 countries, seventeen of which it studies in detail, such as Chile, Turkey, Indonesia, Thailand and Ghana.
Speaking of the report at a press conference earlier this month at the UN, its main author Khalid Malik said, “I think we will look back and say this was a really historic period.” This includes, he noted, an unprecedented expansion of the world’s middle class.
During the industrial revolution of the 19th century, 100 million people were brought into the middle class, whereas Malik noted, projections expect that between 1990 and 2030 the middle class will expand by 3 billion people. Other highlights included that since 1990, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty (on less than $1.25 per day), has declined sharply from 43% to 22% in 2008, including 500 million people in China.
How have these unprecedented gains come about? The study identified three features that have been common among these countries.
In particular, the report emphasized the importance of what it calls a “pro-active” state. According to Khalid Malik, this occurs “when elites are committed to improving the lives of the people.” Countries studied in the report have made strong public investments in education, health and infrastructure, all of which improve the quality of people’s lives and have a virtuous affect of promoting economic growth and making it sustainable. Moreover, governments have actively promoted job creation, while strongly supporting their private sectors to nurture industrial capacity.
Tapping into global financial markets was a second common factor that has enabled countries to import knowledge and technologies to speed up development and industrial growth. However, the benefits of financial markets only accrue if states also invest in their people, institutions and infrastructure, and the opening up to markets is done gradually.
Lastly, countries making broad progress in human development have been doing so through innovative social policies, in particular, ones designed to reduce poverty and engage disenfranchised groups. The innovation occurring among developing countries is highlighted in the report, for example, by New York City emulating Mexico’s cash transfer programs to the poor.
The study points out that challenges remain to sustain these gains, two of which are income inequality and climate change. “The report makes the conclusion that equal societies do better than unequal societies,” stated Malik, so countries must be keen to this phenomena. Without addressing climate change, the world could see poverty rise dramatically. On the other hand, “by addressing environmental sustainability,” Malik noted, “there are opportunities to accelerate progress.”
The report also drew lessons from the Arab Spring. Without countries meeting the rising expectations of more educated and globally connected populations with jobs and a voice in governance, there can be civil unrest that reverses human development gains.
Interestingly, the findings contrast with much of the common wisdom in the current US and European discourses to deal with their economic crisis.
The significance attributed to ‘proactive states’ is a stark contrast to the laissez fair and ‘hands-off’ approach that many in the United States advocate. In the US, calls to focus on policies that promote job creation have been drowned out by those prioritizing deficit reduction. Spending cuts in heath and education are widely cited as necessary, and infrastructure improvements have long been deferred for lack of funds, though historically low tax rates and loopholes are defended on behalf of the “job creators.” The report’s warnings about inequity highlight the income inequality that has formed in the United States over the last thirty years as economic growth has sputtered.
In the US, there is scorn today towards providing support to those in poverty, and calls to roll back its innovative programs like affirmative action. And instead, a popular rhetoric over the last three decades has been that ‘government is the problem.’
The authors of the report appear to recognize these contrasts. The report itself points out that much of the way the US achieved its rise included government support of great infrastructure projects and free college education for returning World War II veterans, that helped expand the US middle class.
Warnings are provided about short-sighted measures to cut public expenditures and the report cites the economist John Maynard Keynes that “the boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity.” As Khalid Malik stated when speaking of income inequality, “If you are not looking after societal members, society will not be sustained.”
The contrasts might explain why the US has in recent years been called, ironically, a ‘banana republic’ (a reference to Latin American countries in the 1950s, that have made been making gains to remove this label) and even the first “un-developing country” by its harshest critics.
So while the 2013 Human Development Report focuses rightly on the celebrated economic growth in developing countries (so esteemed by western investors, media and politicians), it attributes these countries’ success to the very policies that western leaders and policy-makers continue to reject. It is a report that is usually only paid attention to by those in the countries where the United Nations Development Program works, but this year leaders in the US and other rich countries may benefit from considering its lessons.
Benjamin Villanti has been part of the United Nations community in New York since 2005, working in both public information and political analysis. He has a Master of Public Administration from Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs from George Washington University. Along with his experience at the UN, Ben possesses a strong interest in US public policy, the Middle East and Latin America as well as history, journalism and film. He speaks fluent Spanish having lived in Madrid, Spain and has studied Arabic. In addition, he is an avid fan of the New York Giants and Knicks (Email: [email protected]). He is a member of MWN editorial board.
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