Wednesday 20 November 2019

Today's good news story is that poverty is being beaten globally

Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Among the most frequently made criticisms of the media is that it is too negative.

Many people are turned off by bad news. Businessfolk, who are optimists by nature, often ask why good news stories don't get more coverage.

Politicians and mandarins routinely whinge that the media gives many times more column inches and airtime to their smallest mistakes than it does to their biggest achievements.

These complaints can, for the most part, be discarded.

The role of the media in a free society is primarily to highlight what is going wrong and why, whether groupings or individuals are at fault and, if so, whether their errors are understandable mistakes, the result of incompetence or something altogether more malign.

If criticisms of media negativity don't really stack up, it is true that the focus on problems can mask bigger picture trends, particularly if they are positive.

That was the case this week when some truly remarkable news hardly got a mention in the media.

"This is the best story in the world today - we are the first generation in human history that can end extreme poverty,'' so said Jim Yong Kim, head of the World Bank in Washington DC.

He was speaking last Sunday when his organisation published its latest findings on the astonishing decline in the numbers of our fellow human beings around the world who live on next to nothing.

The World Bank estimates that today just under one in 10 people around the world population lives in 'extreme poverty' - measured as living on less than $1.90 a day.

This paltry sum is the amount needed in the poorest of countries to purchase basic needs and is adjusted for the cost of living across the world and over time. This marks a dramatic decline in the proportion of the planet's people who live at or under subsistence levels.

In 1990 over one in three people lived in extreme poverty. In other words, tens of millions of people each year have moved away from living on the very edge.

And the numbers continue to plummet, which is all the more remarkable as the world's population has increased by two billion since the 1990s.

Those who were pessimistic about the prospects of reducing extreme poverty have been proven wrong. Economic growth has been doing the heavy lifting in reducing global poverty.

As a country gets more prosperous, extreme poverty gradually falls, via increased wages and social transfers.

This process has been most striking in the world's most populous country.

China, which accounts for much of the global decline in human want, changed tack four decades ago, abandoning communism in favour of economic liberalisation, and hundreds of millions have been lifted out of extreme poverty as a result.

But the good news story is not confined to China alone.

Every region has recorded long-term declines in extreme poverty, largely because economic growth has been especially strong in most poorer countries in recent decades. As concerns about rising inequality within many rich countries grow, inequality among the nations of the world is declining.

The progress of the 21st century is well illustrated by the achievement of most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - a list of development targets drawn up by the United Nations in 2000 for the 15 years to 2015.

The headline goal was to halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty across the globe. That was achieved years ahead of target.

All the target goals saw large improvements, even if some fell short, including those on increasing primary education enrolment, reducing hunger and cutting child and maternal mortality.

But most of the goals were met.

These include improving access to clean drinking water, halting the spread of HIV and greater gender equality in schools.

Replacing the MDGs are the new Sustainable Development Goals, a longer list of objectives which include a wider definition of poverty and which were settled up two weeks ago at the UN's biggest annual meeting in New York.

The first of these goals is massively ambitious: the ending of poverty in all its forms everywhere by 2030.

Nowhere will this be harder to achieve than in sub-saharan Africa, and particularly in those countries that have been prone to conflict and poor governance.

Yet in spite of the constant negativity that surrounds Africa, there has been plenty of encouraging news of late and it is just about possible that extreme want will be eliminated there by the end of the next decade.

Sub-saharan Africa has been home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world in the 21st century.

According to the IMF, the region has been the second-fastest-growing region in the world after Asia since the turn of the millennium.

And the latest IMF growth forecasts, released just this week, point to the continent's strong growth continuing, proving that there is a lot more to the African renaissance than the now-collapsed boom in commodity prices.

Better news still for the world's poorest continent is that the economic growth that most of its 50-odd countries have enjoyed recently is improving people's lives.

A broad measure of a country's overall well-being is the UN Human Development Index, which includes health and education outcomes, along with income measures.

While sub-saharan Africa lagged behind every other region of the world in the 1980s and 1990s, its gains in human development have soared since the turn of the century.

The world faces huge challenges and there will always be more than enough bad news to fill the pages of newspapers.

But on the incredibly important matter of the level of basic material want on the planet, we are slowly moving in the right direction.

That really is the best news story in the world today.

Irish Independent

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