Annemarie van Gaal: Developing countries
Thursday 08 November 2012
Developing countries are catching up fast. Development aid can be more of a hindrance than a help, writes Annemarie van Gaal
We are cutting the development aid budget by €1bn a year and this is a good thing. The inequality in the world is no longer a matter of ‘us’, the industrialised world, and ‘them’, the third-world countries. Inequality is mainly a problem within the countries themselves and throwing money at it is not going to solve it. If anything, it will make it worse.
In 1990 the Dutch gave massively to ‘Help the Russians through the winter’, as the slogan had it. We were bombarded daily with images of desperate Russians in empty shops, shivering children and long queues outside soup kitchens. Sonja Barend hosted a programme from a shabby little studio in Moscow and the Dutch donated generously. The whole thing was a great success and the Russians were ‘saved’.
In fact, there was no lack of food in Russia. The only problem the country was struggling with was its rapid development. Russia was emerging from a communist regime and had trouble adapting to the free market. Under communism, goods were produced and trucks trundled back and forth according to a fixed route. Nobody asked whether the goods were actually answering a demand or whether the trucks were going to the right place.
Moreover, Russian officials had no intention of giving up their comfortable positions, so they preferred to keep the food-laden trucks waiting at customs for weeks instead of promoting a quicker flow. The real problem was a lack of compassion from the haves for the have nots, the division of wealth and the inequality between the different layers of Russian society itself. No amount of money was going to solve that.
On Ted.com Hans Rosling, one of the founders of Doctors without borders, compares our perception of third world countries with the reality on the ground. According to Rosling, third world countries are catching up fast. Some differences remain but these countries are developing at a much quicker rate than any western country.
He supports his comment with a graph showing child mortality on the y-axis and the gross national product on the x-axis. If you look at these data over time you will see that third world countries are gaining rapidly on the industrialised countries.
A century ago the gap between a country like Chile and the United States and Western Europe was huge. Right now, Chile’s economic welfare level is comparable to that of the US in 1957. But because the Chilean economy is growing at a faster rate than that of the US, Chile could well be replacing the US on Gosling’s graph in twenty or thirty years’ time. Ghana is now where Sweden was in 1900. In 1920 Sweden was where Egypt is now and in 1950 the Swedish economy was at the level Mexico is at right now.
Former third world countries in Asia, the Middle East and South America already have better healthcare systems than the industrialised nations. It won’t be long before they beat us economically as well
Rosling thinks the term ‘third world countries’ should be scrapped. If we didn’t hold them back by handing over our money – which ends up lining the wrong pockets and keeps the wrong people in power -these countries would develop a damn sight more quickly than many a western country. The greatest problem that these countries have to tackle is the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ within their own borders.
Annematie van Gaal is head of publishing company AM Meda. She is also a writer and television personality