Columnists

Thomas Ponniah
The progress of nations

| March 27, 2013
UNDP Administrator Helen Clark at the HDR2013 official launch

If you were stranded on a deserted island -- without online access -- what book would most help you while away the hours? Some would opt for the latest novel by Haruki Murakami whose compelling, enigmatic stories would keep one endlessly entertained. Others might choose the Bible or Keith Richards' autobiography in order to gain spiritual insight. The question is an interesting one because it provides us with an engaging nugget of self-knowledge. For social scientists, however, the question would operate on very different assumptions: what piece of research should one study from cover to cover when stranded -- not on a deserted island -- but in the malaise, and grandeur, of the modern world? For anyone committed to global social progress the indispensable text is the latest United Nations Human Development Report because it provides like no other a comprehensive snapshot of the progress and regress of nations.

This year's account is titled The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World. The study points out that by 2020 the combined economic output from Brazil, China and India will surpass the combined production of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. This is either a startling new development or a return to a historically familiar situation: in 1820, Brazil, China and India produced 48 per cent of world economic output while the G7 countries (the United States, Japan, Germany, Canada, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom) produced only 20 per cent. These numbers steadily reversed to the point that in 1940 the G7 generated 50 per cent of world economic output and the three developing countries produced only 10 per cent. By 2020, the numbers will have reversed in favour of the Southern giants.

The report recognizes that economic growth does not necessarily lead to human development; progress comes if the benefits of growth are routed towards improving equity, facilitating greater citizen participation, meeting environmental challenges and handling demographic transformation. Brazil, China and India have maintained remarkable growth alongside substantial levels of public investment in infrastructure, health and education. As well, their entry into global markets has occurred because of their thoughtful, sequenced incorporation into the world economy as opposed to having abruptly opened themselves to market forces. The consequences of their policies have been substantial: the proportion of people in the world living in extreme poverty, that is, on less than the equivalent of $1.25 per day, fell from 43.1 per cent in 1990 to 22.4 per cent in 2008 and this result is primarily because of the success of the three countries in alleviating destitution. Brazil, China and India have all dramatically reduced the proportion of their impoverished: Brazil from 17.2 per cent of the population in 1990 to 6.1 per cent in 2009, China from 60.2 per cent in 1990 to 13.1 per cent in 2008 and India from 49.4 per cent in 1990 to 32.7 per cent in 2010. The growing wealth of these nations has not precluded social development.

The analysis observes not only the rise of Brazil, China and India but also relatively impressive improvements in Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey, Bangladesh, Chile, Ghana, Mauritius, Rwanda and Tunisia. The research comments that to some extent we are witnessing two different worlds: on one hand a rising South -- driven by proactive states, access to global markets and innovative social policy -- and on the other hand an anxious North oriented by an austerity agenda, economic uncertainty and unemployment. The report remarks that the North has forgotten the admonition of the 20th century's most influential economist: "The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity." While John Maynard Keynes -- whose most famous contemporary representative is the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman -- is not the economist for the long-term, especially in light of industrialization's impacts in terms of climate change, trans-boundary pollution, and the depletion of bio-diversity -- his ideas, as witnessed in Brazil, China and India -- clearly need to be implemented in at least the short-term in the North.

Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

Photo: United Nations Development Programme/Flickr