Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, International Humanist and Ethical Union and the National Ethical Service of the American Ethical Union representative to the UN; and Temma Ehrenfeld, a freelance writer based in New York City.
Since 1990, the United Nations has published a development report recording human wellbeing. While income is crucial, it is widely acknowledged that although human welfare cannot be evaluated by money alone, without resources any progress is difficult. We must consider whether people can lead long and healthy lives and have the opportunity to be educated as well. For this purpose, the Human Development Index (HDI) was created, combining income, life expectancy and education to assess human wellbeing.
There has been progress. The world's average HDI has increased almost 20% since 1990 (and 40% since 1970) reflecting large improvements in life expectancy, school enrollment, literacy and income. For example, average life expectancy around the globe recently jumped to 70 years, up from just 59 years in 1970.
The report points out that the HDI relies on national averages which often conceal lopsided distributions in income, health and education. The last 20 years have seen increasing inequality between countries, and importantly within countries. China for example, based on income alone demonstrates the largest increase in development over the past 40 years. Its economy has grown by an average of 8% per year, but the improvements in income have not always been matched by advances in life expectancy, health and education. As a result, China is only 79th in terms of improvement in life expectancy and schooling. Income inequality in China has skyrocketed as extreme poverty remains in much of the countryside. Similarly, India has seen a growing middle class, but 42% of people are still extremely poor, with an average life expectancy of 64 years.
Human development research, confirmed by the HDI report, shows the lack of significant correlation between economic growth and improvements in health and education in low and middle level countries.The 2010 report provides a succinct summary. Equity and the HDI are systematically related. Countries that do well on the HDI tend to be more equitable. The result is consistent with research indicating that reducing inequality, both in the population as a whole and across gender and other groups, can improve outcomes in health and education as well as economic growth.
Globally more people have improved their lives. However, the startling and troublesome fact is that the number of desperate poor, about 1.3 billion, has remained the same over the years. Where do the "bottom billion" live?
The usual assumption has been that the poor live in poor countries. This was true in 1990: then over 90% of the world's poor lived in the world's poorest places. Many of the fragile, failed states (about 50 of them) had civil wars and often dysfunctional governments. A recent study by the British Institute of Development Studies indicates an important change over the last 20 years, namely that three-quarters of the 1.3 billion very poor people now live in middle-level countries. The increased wealth of these newly risen middle-level countries has not filtered down to the very poor. Some of these countries are: India , China, Nigeria, Pakistan and Indonesia. Persistent poverty is quite often a political problem due to lopsided distributions of wealth, health and educational resources.
The World Bank, not the most progressive institution, published a significant report in 2006 providing detailed evidence that high levels of economic and political inequality lead to economic institutions and social arrangements that systematically favor the interests of an elite with more influence. Such institutions, it states, undermine a country's potential for growth and poverty reduction. In short, vast inequalities, aside of being immoral, are also bad for the economy. Coming from the World Bank this is surely a remarkable statement.
There are programs to help the poor. One innovation is the Conditional Cash-Transfer (CCT) programs. These programs give stipends and food to the poorest if they meet certain conditions, such as their children attending school, their babies being vaccinated, and their children having regular health checks. Ten years ago there were only a handful of such programs. Now they exist on every continent - and they benefit millions of people. Even New York City has a CCT program. This program originated in Brazil, and has spread to the Philippines, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Pakistan These programs are not a panacea, but are still very helpful.
Ultimately, extreme maldistribution is immoral, bad for the economy and unsustainable.