The Official News From


By David Nyhan

Boston Globe
October 4, 1999

Boston - Human nature being what it is, the hawkers of news prosper more off what arouses the customer than what accurately informs. That is why you get more sizzle than steak, particularly when matters ''foreign'' are addressed. Pictures of a boy dragged from the earthquake's rubble or of a riot squad in action are more compelling than footage of some middle-aged bureaucrat rattling on about poverty statistics.

But today we are holding the sizzle and serving you steak, in the form of speeches made in Washington last week before the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. What is really going on here on Spaceship Earth?

Some good things: Life expectancy, on average, has gone up more in the last 40 years than in the previous 4,000. The Internet means near universal access to information. Then there are the not-so-good trends. The World Bank chief, James Wolfensohn, said on Tuesday that per capita incomes would ''stagnate or decline this year in all regions except East and South Asia.'' And some 1.5 billion people are ''still lacking access to safe water.'' Some 125 million children are still not in primary school. We have ''a world where the information gap is widening.'' And the forests are being destroyed at the rate of an acre a second.

These statistics are almost impossible to believe. In the time it takes to sneeze, three acres of forest are burned. And everything revolves around money. It is poverty which holds half of mankind in chains. Half of humanity gets along on the equivalent of $2 a day, or less. Half of that half lives on less than $1 a day. When a child born today reaches the age of 25, there will be 2 billion additional people fighting for air, water, food, space, roofs, jobs, schooling, roads, sewers, farmland. Only development will spare them a life of perilous poverty.

As the person more responsible than any other, perhaps even more obligated than the president of the United States, for the well-being of mankind and the development of economic structures to make its future more secure, Mr. Wolfensohn said: ''We have learned that development is possible but not inevitable, that growth is essential but not sufficient to ensure poverty reduction.'' And it is essential to help poor people with local institutions, controlled by them, insulated against the corruption, both petty and grand, that turns so many cops and bureaucrats in poor countries into petty despots or grand thieves.

Mr. Wolfensohn quoted from a World Bank study, '' Voices of the Poor,'' distilled from 60,000 poor people in 60 countries. ''Poverty is much more than a matter of income alone. The poor seek a sense of well-being - which is peace of mind.'' What do the poor of the planet want? ''It is good health, community, and safety. It is choice, and freedom, as well as a steady source of income.'' ''To live in love without hunger;'' said an old African woman. ''To be well is to know what will happen to me tomorrow,'' said an East European survivor of communism. Said a mother in Southeast Asia: ''When my child asks for something to eat, I say the rice is cooking until he falls asleep from hunger. For there is no rice.''

The day after Mr. Wolfensohn laid out the challenge, President Bill Clinton showed up to announce cancellation of that portion of the debt owed the United States by 36 of the poorest countries which had not already been forgiven. The Pope and a number of celebrities had been agitating for debt forgiveness. The Clinton administration had already written off about 90 percent of that debt, and this final write-off of what once totaled nearly $6 billion will encourage the campaigners of Jubilee 2000 to press other lender nations to follow suit. Mr. Clinton has been a very good president, all things considered, for the poorer people of the planet.

He alluded to the high-priced lobbying that goes on in the jousting between agricultural haves to carve out more elbow room at the trough of market share: ''Because we want to fight over who sells the most food ... are we supposed to accept the fact that nearly 40 million people a year die of hunger? That's nearly equal to the number of all the people killed in World War II.'' He had more good lines, such as ''the wealth of nations depends upon the health of nations.'' But you get the idea. We rich nations are our brother's keeper. Sister's too.

More Information on Social and Economic Policy
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