Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed August 1996
Copyright ©1996 by Morris David Morris

Light in the Tunnel: The Changing Condition of the World's Poor

Morris Davis Morris is professor of sociology and professor of the comparative study of development (emeritus) at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and professor of economics (emeritus) at the University of Washington, Seattle.

"The pallid justification that growth benefits will trickle down to benefit the world's poor in the long run ignores the truth that in the long run we are all dead"

Can a person live on less than a dollar a day? Can a family of five live on less than $5 a day? The World Bank reports that 1.4 billion people - 26 percent of the world's total - do. They live in the 25 countries (18 of them in Africa) where per-capita annual income in 1993 was $350 or less. With few exceptions, these are countries where economic performance has deteriorated since the 1970s or where economic growth has barely matched population increase. Media accounts from these countries report hunger, famine, disaster, bloody fratricidal conflict and the collapse of political stability.

Yet these grim impressions of precipitous disintegration are at odds with reality. Although far from the threshold to paradise, human well-being as measured by infant mortality, life expectancy and literacy has been improving in these poorest-of-the-poor countries. These gains for the poorest of the poor have come through their own indigenous efforts.

There is not only light at the end of the tunnel: We can even say that there is light in the tunnel. What evidence leads us to challenge the widespread belief in ever-increasing misery?

First, the gross national product (GNP) measure used by the World Bank and USAID as their basic indicator of human well-being is seriously flawed. Obviously, no one could stay alive on what a dollar a day will buy at U.S. prices. But the GNP ignores differences in prices and the distribution of income. It also fails to illuminate how efficiently income is spent. For instance, U.S. health expenditures per capita are the highest in the world, but at least 22 countries had better infant and child (under 5) mortality rates in 1993.

If we want to measure the changing condition of the world's poor, we need a better measure of what is happening to them. The measure must tell us not how much has been spent but how effectively lives have improved. While there are many other things we might want to know, infant mortality, life expectancy at age one and basic literacy are central to well-being of the poorest of the poor.

In the mid-1970s, encouraged by James Grant, who subsequently became UNICEF's head, I developed the Physical Quality of Life Index. The PQLI summarizes infant mortality, life expectancy at age one and basic literacy on a zero to 100 scale. The index enables researchers to rank countries, not by incomes but by changes in real life chances. A major finding in the initial study was the lack of congruence between GNP per capita and the PQLI. Industrialized countries tended to rank high in the index, but other countries with high incomes, especially the very richest Mideast oil producers, had PQLIs in the low 30s. Some very poor countries like Sri Lanka (PQLI of 82) and the Indian state of Kerala (PQLI of 68) performed well despite very low monetary incomes.

Additional research between 1960 and 1990 expands and confirms these fascinating findings that run counter to conventional wisdom. For instance:

* In 1960, the average PQLI for all the 127 countries (weighted by population) was 50.1. By 1990, the world average PQLI had risen in 71.7. This rise represents real improvement in well-being. Each baby has only one life to be saved. The rich cannot capture all the gains in life expectancy. Literacy rises only when more children go to school. This 30-year gain took place while population increased by 76 percent. This improvement offers a useful corrective for those who are utterly panicked by rapid population growth.

* In 1960, 53 percent of the world's population lived in countries with PQLI averages of less than 50. By 1990, only 11 percent lived in countries with averages of less than 50. This means that the number of people in the under-50 PQLI group fell from 1.7 billion to 584 million during that 30-year period.

* Between 1960 and 1985, the PQLI values of the economically poorest countries, those with incomes under $450 per capita in constant 1980 dollars, rose from 31 to 64. This was faster improvement than occurred in the higher income classes.

* Sub-Saharan Africa includes three of the 20 regions into which I divide these 127 countries. These three regions combined had the world's worst PQLI performances in 1960 and in 1990. Yet between 1960 and 1990 the average PQLI of sub-Sahara Africa rose from 21 to 50. This is quite inconsistent with the political and economic indicators on which the doomsayers depend.

These improvements did not come because of World Bank or USAID support. The gains have come mainly from the mobilization of indigenous capacities. Development experts are blind to the fact that some of the world's poorest people have always had to adapt to the changing demands of exacting environments, and have done so with considerable skill.

Rising PQLI numbers show that there is vitality, creativity and genuine organizational potential that can be mobilized to directly improve the conditions of poor countries. To take advantage of these indigenous capacities requires us to reduce the single-minded focus on rapid economic growth measures. The pallid justification that growth benefits will trickle down to benefit the world's poor in the long run ignores the truth that in the long run we are all dead. Strategies to increase the opportunities for the world's poor in their lifetimes require investing in human capital in new ways. Foreign donors, official as well as non-governmental organizations, must learn to be true partners who can give up the power of the purse and accept the validity of working through indigenous institutions.