November 23, 2017 / 3:40 PM / in a year

Breakingviews - Hadas: Be thankful for good economic news

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - “The needy nations grow more destitute, while the rich nations become even richer.” When Pope Paul VI wrote that in 1967, the leader of the Catholic Church was expressing the era’s conventional wisdom. The pope then begged all people of goodwill, poor and rich alike, to change the situation. Much of his prayer has been granted.

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi - RC16377532E0

Commentators on the global economy often gloss over the accomplishment. Their neglect is understandable. They mostly watch financial markets and cross-border trade rather than the lives of the desperately poor. Besides, they usually think in quarters and years, not decades.

In the scales of history, though, most of the economic news of 2017 weighs nothing. America’s Thanksgiving holiday is a good time to take a break from such immediate economic passions as salivating or fulminating about futures contracts in bitcoin. Instead, consider the “Progress of the Peoples” – as Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical was called.

A good place to start is Our World in Data. This website, produced at the University of Oxford, offers clear and flexible graphics to document what might be called key performance indicators of the human condition. All the sources are carefully cited, and there are even helpful explanatory essays.

Hunger is the most basic indicator of material need. In this dimension, Paul VI’s call to “ensure that there will be enough bread at the table of mankind” has been answered fairly clearly. Food production has increased faster than total population. Average daily calories consumed by each person have increased by 25 percent. This per-capita increase is made even more impressive by the fact that the number of people on the planet has doubled over the same period.

Have the poor fully participated in these food gains? The best measure of that is the global decline of undernourishment. Data is only available from 1991, when 18.6 percent of humanity suffered from inadequate nutrition. The scourge has been in steady retreat since then. The most recent reading, for 2015, was 10.8 percent.

The pope would have welcomed the material progress, but as a religious leader he craved more. “Lack of education is as serious as lack of food; the illiterate is a starved spirit.” By his definition, about half the world’s spirits were starving in 1967. Now the proportion without education is less than 15 percent: an astounding gain in just two generations.

Our World in Data covers many indicators, from child labour to energy production to violent deaths to the development of democracy. For almost all of them, the global trends for the last half-century are positive, often dramatically so.

China is undoubtedly the economic star, but there is much good news elsewhere too. There has even been substantial progress in sub-Saharan Africa, where development has long lagged. Energy use per person there has doubled in 50 years and the undernourished portion of the population has fallen from 33 percent to 19 percent over 25 years.

The global decline in so many dimensions of misery may well be the greatest economic achievement ever. It falsifies the old truism that “the poor you will always have with you”. The wretchedly poor do not have to be with us. The modern economy is clearly capable of ending hunger, dramatically reducing infant mortality and bringing schooling, not to mention mobile phones and comfortable housing, to everyone.

It took millennia to develop the technical tools and social systems needed to guarantee universal basic prosperity, but by now the ingredients are well enough understood to be put into action anywhere. Investment and institutions are crucial. These include governments and markets, as well as schools and banks.

These days, the greatest challenge is not finding the necessary technology. It can all be imported easily. The hard part is finding governments and community leaders with enough goodwill and competence. With improving education, even that should become easier.

Considering the scope for eliminating desperate poverty, its continued existence is a global disgrace. Pope Francis, the current holder of Paul VI’s position, declared Nov. 19 to be the first World Day of the Poor. He wanted to draw attention to the persistence of “marginalization, oppression … ignorance and illiteracy … shortage of work … extreme poverty and forced migration”. 

Francis is right to condemn complacency. The great economic revolution has come far, but there is still a long way to go. Roughly a billion people still lack almost all the essential goods of modern prosperity. Several billions more who have the basics live in societies which could provide them with the full fruits of modern technical ingenuity, but do not.

What is to be done? While poor countries have to address their own domestic weakness, Paul VI thought wealthier nations could and should help out. Many secularists would agree with his call for “mutual solidarity” of rich and poor, even if they do not quite share his belief in the “supernatural brotherhood of man”. 

Back in the 1960s, the pope sketched out an agenda of solidarity for developed economies.  He said they could help their poor brothers and sisters with fairer trade terms, more helpful direct aid and a warmer welcome for economic migrants. The suggestions are as valuable, and as controversial, now as then. Some news never seems to get old.


Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.

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