Questions over whether the glass is half full or half empty seem to be a common backdrop these days in the world of international development. With the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) deadline of 2015 fast approaching, and prospects of very few targets being met, a kind of angst is leaving many to wonder whether there is greater cause for optimism or despair. At first glance, a quick appraisal presents a depressingly mixed picture, with the biggest emerging story being persistent inequalities both within and between countries. Not terribly encouraging.
Yet the 2013 Human Development Report (HDR) – ‘The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World’ – sits firmly in the glass half full camp, even in the face of unmet targets and an unequal world. What has put it there? First of all, much of the report’s analysis is framed by a view that considers the starting rather than the finish line, that is, life for many on the planet is better than it used to be, even if it doesn’t yet look as it should. Second – and although there’s a clue in the title, this needs a drumroll – the report lays claim to a kind of ‘delta’ of development, presenting the case for how ‘the South as a whole is driving global economic growth and societal change for the first time in centuries’. We’ll come back to this.
But first, the evidence laid out in the report does a pretty good job of justifying its optimistic lens. Most strikingly, it shows that more than 40 developing countries have outpaced expected gains in human development in recent decades – going beyond the better-known growth stories like those of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to include a number of smaller countries such as Chile, Ghana and Thailand. Analysis presented includes the following:
- Worldwide, the proportion of people in extreme income poverty fell from 43% to 22% between 1990 and 2008, meaning the first of the MDGs, on poverty eradication, has been achieved ahead of schedule.
- The South’s share of the middle-class population expanded rapidly between 1990 and 2010, rising from 26% to 58%.
- Fourteen countries have recorded rates of progress of more than 2% on the Human Development Index annually since 2000, with Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia perhaps unexpectedly at the top of this list.
- No country for which complete data are available has regressed from where it was at in 2000.
Not a bad run – yet amid this good news the bad is not ignored, with acknowledgement that, for many, the glass may still appear half empty. Severe poverty remains a problem for more than 1.57 billion people, and, while there have been reductions in inequality in areas such as health and education, income inequality is on the rise. Pockets of deprivation remain in every region of the world, and, as the report notes, ‘There is a “south” in the North and a “north” in the South’.
Geographical similes aside, and getting back to the main cause for optimism highlighted in the report, recognition of the rise of the South is significant, if not exactly breaking, news. The fact that there has been a dramatic rebalancing of economic strength increasingly places developing countries in the driver’s seat. This naturally leads on to questions of what works once countries are in this position. While the report’s exploration of some of the key characteristics is helpful – operating as a proactive ‘developmental state’, taking advantage of global markets, social policy investment and innovation – it is just a taster; a closer look at the where, how and who of progress is needed.
Luckily, a number of other efforts are underway to further explore and present what works in development. The Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI’s) Development Progress project, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Better Life Initiative and Princeton’s Innovations for Successful Societies are but a few of these initiatives, with others highlighted on WikiProgress, a growing global platform for sharing information on progress.
Moreover, the changing face of Africa is a particularly hot topic at the moment, with a closer look at progress on the continent through the Africa Progress Panel, the campaign to See Africa Differently, recent research showing the strength of progress by African ‘lions’ and an Economist debate on how real the rise of progress is in Africa, among others. The changing role of the South in development is also beginning to receive its due consideration, and was the focus of a recent conference by ODI’s Centre for Aid and Public Expenditure.
Today’s report is another reminder that the world isn’t changing – it has already changed, and in many places for the better. The optimism of its message is important in maintaining momentum to further improve development outcomes and balance out frustration that poverty and deprivation remain. Clearly, countries across the global South are playing a central role in driving development and in shaping the global future.