By Donella Meadows
–April 20, 1989–
It has been possible to accept, temporarily, the grinding poverty of Third World nations because we think of those nations as developing, following in our footsteps, just a bit behind.
It has been possible to contemplate without despair the rapid expansion of Third World populations, in the belief that as they get richer they will stop growing so fast, as our own population and those of Europe have done. Indeed in most nations of the South economic growth has been strong, and birth rates have been falling. Until the 1980s.
Now, particularly in Latin America and Africa, nations are becoming poorer. Birth rates are rising. A new and frightening possibility presents itself. Maybe development isn’t inevitable. Maybe “un-development” is not only possible, but happening.
UNICEF says in its 1988 State of the World’s Children report: “In many nations, development is being thrown in reverse…. After decades of steady economic advance, large areas of the world are sliding backwards into poverty.”
Maurice Williams, President of the Society for International Development calls the 1980s “a lost decade for most of the developing world.” Stephen Lewis, Special Adviser on Africa to the U.N. Secretary-General refers to the “brutal and mindless 1980s.”
In Latin America average per capita income is nine percent less now than it was in 1980. In Mexico wages have gone down by 30-40 percent. Some countries have regressed economically to where they were 20 years ago.
In sub-Saharan Africa per capita GDP has declined by 16 percent since 1980. The World Bank projects that by 1995 Africa’s output will have climbed back up to 89 percent of what it was in 1970. Nigeria’s per capita income went from $800 to $380 between 1985 and 1987. The minimum wage in Kenya declined 42 percent in this decade, and the percentage of children stunted by malnutrition rose from 24 to 28.
UNICEF says that in the 37 poorest nations of the world spending on health fell by 50 percent in the 1980s, and on education by 25 percent. In almost half the 103 countries of the Third World the fraction of 6 to 11-year-olds enrolled in school has decreased.
The foreign debt of the South has climbed since 1980 from $400 billion to over $1 trillion. (In the same period world expenditures on armaments went up by the same amount — from $400 billion to $1 trillion PER YEAR.)
In 1979 a net $40 billion flowed from North to South. Now, because of debt repayments and capital flight, a net $85 billion each year flows from South to North. Over the past 5 years Latin America paid out in debt service $135 billion more than it received in capital inflows.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are working furiously on a plan to reduce Third World debt by $70 billion over the next few years. That’s seven percent of the outstanding debt. It’s much too little. Everything being discussed by the Powers That Be is too little. When roads, machines, and factories are not being repaired, when children are growing up malnourished, ill, and uneducated, when forests, pastures, fields, and mines are being plundered for basic survival or to pay back debt, more than a decade is being lost. A generation at least is lost — and maybe the opportunity ever to rise out of poverty.
Worst of all, because in most countries death rates are down but not birth rates, populations are growing at nearly their maximum rate. Between 1978 and 1988 the population of the Third World increased from 3.2 to 4 billion, an increase three times the total population of the United States. If these growing populations don’t sense continued improvement in their lives, their birth rates will not come down. They are at the toughest point in the development process; the point where the biggest push is necessary to get over the hump — and to keep from rolling back downhill.
In case you think the development of the South has nothing to do with you, consider that Third World economic reversals have cost the U.S. tens of billions of dollars a year in lost exports and over a million jobs. We are pleading with Third World peoples not to level tropical forests, not to scuttle international treaties about the ozone layer and greenhouse effect, not to compete in our markets, not to sell us drugs, not to migrate across our borders, not to disrupt our airlines with their desperation and terrorism, not to form mineral cartels, not to disrupt the international monetary system. Our welfare is intertwined with their welfare in a hundred ways. One thing we can’t afford is for them not to develop.
Every MINUTE while we and the international banks dither, Third World debt rises by another $100,000, deserts expand by 120 acres, 50 acres of tropical forest are cleared, 18 children starve to death, and the population of the South grows by 150. We haven’t got a decade to lose. We haven’t even got a minute.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989