Consumption Gap Is Widening, Says UN Report


By Farhan Haq

InterPress Service
September 9, 1998

United Nations - World consumption has swelled to 24 trillion dollars a year, resulting in huge disparities between North and South and widening gaps between wealthy shoppers and the hungry poor in every nation, says the new 'Human Development Report' published by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

The total amount consumed worldwide in 1998 is six times the 1950 level and 16 times what it was at the beginning of the century, says the report, published Wednesday.

Worse, the poorest fifth of the world's population -- or more than one billion people -- have been left out of the consumption explosion, the study adds, lacking food and water even as sales of cars and televisions skyrocket.

''Abundance of consumption is no crime, but it is scandalous that the poor are unable to consume enough to meet even their most basic needs,'' UNDP Administrator James Gustave Speth says.

On the one hand, the number of radios sold in Africa has surged by more than 400 percent between 1975 and 1995, while sales of television sets in Latin America, and of cars in East Asia, have jumped by 500 percent and 1,400 percent, respectively, in that same period.

Since 1960, global fresh water consumption has doubled and the size of the marine catch has increased four-fold, while fossil fuel consumption has quintupled since 1950, the report adds.

On the other hand, it argues, most of the 4.4 billion people who live in the developing world still lack the essentials of life even as wealthy elites acquire the taste for cars and personal computers.

Three-fifths of the developing world's population lack basic sanitation, nearly a third do without safe drinking water, a quarter have inadequate or no housing, and a fifth lack modern health services, the report estimates.

The report, the latest in a series published by UNDP since 1990, sharply criticises the inequalities in consumption within and among countries.

The people living in the world's richest countries are only a fifth of its population, the report says, but account for 45 percent of all meat and fish consumption, 58 percent of total energy use, 84 percent of all paper usage and 87 percent of vehicle ownership.

Despite such riches, the report adds, the industrialised world has shocking amounts of poverty, with more than 100 million people -- or about a tenth of its inhabitants -- living below the poverty line, an equivalent number homeless and at least 37 million people unemployed. The lesson, Speth says, is that ''more is not invariably better''.

For this report, UNDP has devised a human poverty index (called HPI-2) suited for the industrialised world -- comprising the percentage of the population likely to die before the age of 60, the percentage of functionally illiterate people, the proportion of people whose income is less than half the national median and the percentage of long-term unemployment.

Based on those standards, the report concludes that poverty in the North affects between 7 percent (in Sweden) and 17 percent (in the United States) of the population.

Along with the United States, Spain (13 percent), Britain and Ireland (both 15 percent) have large populations living in poverty, while Sweden and the Netherlands (8 percent) are the only Northern countries whose poor comprise fewer than a tenth of their population.

If so many people in the consumption-heavy North fare so poorly, the poor in the South fare still worse. According to the report, the three richest people in the world own assets in excess of the gross domestic products (GDPs) of the world's 48 poorest countries put together.

While industrialised nations can boast 405 cars for every 1,000 people, the ratio of automobiles to people in sub-Saharan Africa is 11 per 1,000, and in South Asia and East Asia, 5 per 1,000. The United States has 600 telephone lines for every 1,000 people, while Cambodia only provides one for the same number.

Meanwhile, the expanding demand for goods in the North puts a strain on the South when it comes to providing even basic food for its people. Growing fish consumption in the industrialised countries, the report notes, leads the South to export fish even though it is often the main source of protein for the world's poorest people.

Partly as a result of this, protein consumption can vary from as high as 115 grammes a day for a French citizen to just 32 grammes a day for a Mozambican.

''Consumers, civil society and governments must forge alliances for new patterns of consumption,'' says Richard Jolly, the report's principal author.

''The world needs patterns of consumption that share resources, not divide societies; ...that are socially responsible, not destructive of the well-being of others; that are sustainable and do not degrade the natural resource base and environment for present and future generations,'' he says.

The report argues that consumption levels for the world's poorest people must be raised and that consumption patterns be made more equal and more environmentally sustainable.

Meanwhile, it adds, consumers must be informed better about the real costs of consumption, and about product safety and access to real needs. Currently, the world is awash in advertising -- which costs at least 435 billion dollars worldwide.

Yet, although the average US television-watcher sees 150,000 advertisements during his or her life, consumers often lack information about the impact the things they buy have on their health, the environment or on other people's well-being, says Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, director of the UNDP Human Development Report Office.

''Consumers need information that is strengthening,'' Fukuda- Parr argues. ''They need to be able to identify those goods and services that take minimal toll on the environment, that are produced by labourers who are not exploited, that are not harmful to people's health. Studies have shown that European consumers are willing to pay 5 to 10 percent more for products that are environmentally responsible.''

Like previous reports, this year's edition features a ranking of nations by theie Human Development Index (HDI), which aggregates national GDPs, life expectancy at birth and adult literacy.

Canada, for many years the leading nation in HDI, again heads the 1998 rankings, followed by France, Norway, the United States and Iceland. The fifteen nations with the worst HDIs are all from sub-Saharan Africa, with war-ravaged Sierra Leone dead last.

When the rankings are adjusted for gender disparities, Canada still leads, but is followed by Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland. Some nations' standings drop precipitously when gender is accounted for: Japan, eighth-best in HDI, drops to 13th in gender- related development; Chile goes from 31st to 46th; and Saudi Arabia plummets from 70th to 102nd.

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