Chapter 1: A Few Figures From the U.N., by François Houtart
We esteem that the main function of economy is to contribute to the blossoming of all the people by ensuring material well-being and dignity. It is the reason why we consider it necessary to question the contemporary capitalist system, of which the different shapes are highlighted by notions such as “neo-liberalism”, “globalization” , “global market”.
Some figures, collected by François Polet, give us an idea of the current state of well-being of the human community. They are mainly inspired from the 1996 and 1997 UNOP reports. The social inequality that is indicated by the champagne glass’ of income distribution in the world (UNDP 1992) is also obvious from other statistics…
‘The United Nations notes that the 358 richest people in the world possess a fortune equivalent in value to the combined income of the poorest 45% of the poorest..” (UNDP Report, 1996)
The point here is to refuse to accept the iniquity that these figures indicate as something natural, perpetual and therefore unchangeable but rather as the product of an economic system that itself generates injustice.
‘Between 1970 and 1985, world GNP has certainly increased 40% but the number of poor people has grown by 17%. Some 200 million people have already witnessed their per capita income fall between 1965 and 1980. From 1980 to 1983, this was the case for more than a million individuals.” (UNDP Report 1996)
“Whereas in 1960 the 20% of the world population living in the richest countries had an income 30 times greater than the 20% of the poorest countries, in 1995 the income of the richest 20% has grown to 82 times greater.” (I. Ramonet)
Such poverty therefore should more correctly be characterised as pauperisation. It is not simply a matter of a state of poverty rather it is a process continuously at work at the very heart of global economic functioning.
Looking at issues from a historical perspective, it is evident that certain people are paying dearly for the latest developments of the global system.
“In the past 15-20 years more than 100 developing and transition countries have suffered disastrous failures in growth and deeper and more prolonged cuts in living standards than anything experienced in the industrial countries during the Great Depression of the 1930s.” (UNDP Report 1997)
“Growth is a setback for more than a quarter of the world’s population” (UNDP Report 1996)
“Between 1987 and 1993 the number of people with incomes of less than $1 per day increased by almost 100 million to 1.3 billion” (UNDP Report 1997)
“In reality, in more than 100 countries, income per inhabitant is lower today than it was 15 years ago. As a result, nearly 1.6 billion individuals now live worse than at the beginning of the 1980s.” (James Gustave Speth, UNDP administrator, Le Monde, 11 October 1996)
These latest developments of the world economic system are hardly insignificant. They are the result of growing liberalisation, of privatisation and de-regulation. Hence the notion of neo-liberalism to sum up the evolution of the last 20 years.
The concept of poverty or pauperisation might appear too general or abstract to describe a reality that has many alarming dimensions: food, health, education…
“More than 800 million human beings do not have enough to eat and around 500 million individuals suffer from chronic malnutrition.” (UNDP Report 1996)
“Each year around 17 million persons die of curable infectious or parasitic diseases such as diarrhea. malaria or tuberculosis.” (UNDP Report 1996)
“Millions of children do not always have access to schools — 130 million at primary level and more than 275 million at secondary level” (UNDP Report 1996)
“According to the estimates of UN agencies, an additional 30-40 billion dollars per year from here to the end of the decade would be required to meet basic nutrition, educational and health needs as well as providing low cost water, sanitation, obstetric and pediatric care. Such a sum may appear considerable but it only represents a quarter of the annual military budget.” (UNDP Report 1996)
“Looking only at OECD member countries in 1993, officially there were 37 million unemployed workers in 1996. This is 3 times as many as at the beginning of the 1970s for a total population whose growth was practically zero.
The populations of the industrialised countries also suffer from the new economic situation.
“In developing countries, growth without job creation means long working hours combined with very low pay for hundreds of millions of persons employed in low productivity jobs in agriculture or the informal sector.” (UNDP Report 1996)
The observation that prevailed in the past that “the rich are found in the North and poor in the South” is no longer completely valid: pockets of great poverty are progressively increasing in the industrialised countries of the North.
“In industrial countries more than 100 million people live below the income poverty line, set at half the individual median income.” (UNDP Report 1997)
“In the United States more than 47 million people have no health insurance. (UNDP Report 1997, p. 29)
“London has about 400,000 registered homeless.” (UNDP Report 1997)
We also know that, by dismantling large parts of the Welfare State, radical reforms in the United Kingdom and the United States have eroded the necessary solidarity between rich and the poor.
Scenarios for the future are even darker in terms of the social or human cost in the so-called “transition” countries of the East. The brutal change to a market economy had already caused their decline into poverty even before the present crisis of the financial system that has plunged Russia into a catastrophic situation.
“In the former Eastern European bloc (following the move to market economies), the average incidence of income poverty for the region increased sevenfold between 1988 and 1994 –from 4% to 32%. The number of poor people in the region increased from 14 million to more than 119 million. In 1993-94, with almost 60 million poor people, Russia alone accounted for nearly half the income-poor in Eastern Europe and the CIS.,” (UNDP Report 1997)
The problem of the debt of the poor countries continues to slow any improvement in the living conditions of hundreds of millions of individuals.
“The reimbursement of debt often absorbs between a quarter and a third of public revenues, which are already limited in developing countries. It thus restricts public investment in crucial human development.”
“The IMF estimates that Mozambique spends $6.20 per person on education and health. Mozambique continues to spend more on debt servicing than on health and education combined. If only half of reimbursements for debt servicing went towards health and education, it would save the lives of 300 children per day and 16 fewer women per day would die following childbirth.”
Poverty is not lived on the same way by men and by women. Victims of large sets of sociological inequities – different opportunities in terms of education, employment and property among other things – women globally have lower perspectives than men. (UNDP Report 1997)
The maternal mortality in developing countries – 384 for 100 000 living births – remains 12 times higher than in the countries of the OECD (UNDP Report 1996)
Beyond the human direct costs engendered by the current global economic regime, the blind pressure on the natural environment induces frightening consequences.
The unrestrained and uncontrolled growth experienced by many countries is devastating forests, polluting waterways, destroying biodiversity and exhausting natural resources. (UNDP Report 1996)
The inhabitants of the industrialized countries constitute only a 5th of the world population, but consume – per inhabitant – nearly 9 times more energy of commercial origin than inhabitants of developing countries. (UNDP Report 1996)
Never has humanity disposed of so many resources and technical means for resolving the problems of survival and wellbeing.