Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Editor's Corner: Give developing countries more credit

Contrary to popular belief, in general, the third world is doing extremely well for itself.

The developing world as it exists in the minds of most Americans can probably be summed up in a delightfully depressing headline from the satirical news outlet, The Onion: “Tens Of Thousands Dead In Ongoing Africa.”

Indeed, famine, extreme poverty, civil war, disease, and a slew of other problems pester plenty of poorer countries around the world.

But these obstacles are not as universal as they may initially seem.

A 2013 survey found that two-thirds of people in the United States think that over the past 20 years, the percentage of the world’s people living in extreme poverty has doubled.

Actually, it’s fallen in half, the United Nations reports.

Even the poster child for the failed state, Somalia, bedeviled by a 23-year-old civil war, terrorism, and piracy, isn’t as bad as we’re often led to believe.

The northwest section of the country, Somaliland, broke away in 1991 and the BBC reports that although it remains an unrecognized nation, it “has a working political system, government institutions, a police force and its own currency.” Somaliland has even been spared from much the bloodshed that has ravaged southern Somalia. Granted, Somaliland still suffers from high unemployment and a weak economy, but the fact that it has functioning law and order is far better than the splotchy, but improving security situation in the south.

Many other African countries are also improving at a rapid pace. The Boston Consulting Group found in its assessment of developing nations that eight of the top 30 countries that had made the most substantial improvements in general well being in recent years were located in sub-Saharan Africa.

The above map shows developing countries, as determined by the International Monetary Fund. Dark green is developing, light green is developing outside the IMF's scope, and red is newly developed countries.                      (BernardoTe/Wikipedia)

Of course there is instability in parts of the continent, like the ethnic cleansing that Amnesty International alleges is taking place in the Central African Republic. Events like these are tragedies and deserve international attention, but it’s easy for the overall positive trends to get lost in the gripping narratives of carnage ravaging a broken country.

A study published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media found that coverage of Africa from NBC, CBS, and ABC declined substantially from 1980 to 2010. Furthermore, when a news story took place in Africa, it typically related to a crisis or disaster.

Although the audience of network television news has fragmented in recent years, there’s no question that the traditional media may be influencing Americans’ perceptions of the developing world, considering that 65 percent of the U.S. public tuned in to watch the network news once a month, according to the Pew Research Center.

Even the United Nations, often ridiculed for its lofty ideals and weak enforcement of international law, gets its strongest military support from developing countries. Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Nepal are hardly what anyone would call particularly well off, yet they contribute a combined 45,000 police and military troops to the UN peacekeeping forces.

Not too bad for the Third World.

And for all the criticism heaped on the United Nations, when its troops are deployed, they appear to be pretty effective. Data on civilian deaths and UN troop deployments from 1991 to 2008 indicates that when substantial UN peacekeeping soldiers and police are present in a conflict situation, the number of civilian casualties drops dramatically.

Researchers’ data analysis showed that when the United Nations is not present, an average of 106 civilians are killed each month, but when at least 8,000 troops are deployed to a given country, the monthly civilian death toll drops to less than two.

None of this is to say that all is well in the world. Clearly, corruption, HIV/AIDS, violence, and poverty still pose major challenges, but the key takeaway is that on average, most of the world is getting better in terms of stability, standards of living, and virtually any other measure of well-being. All too often, when we think of Africa or the Middle East, we just assume the whole place is full of terrorists and slums. And Southeast Asia is just full of people living in swamps right?

As a matter of fact, India, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia are leading an economic boom that Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution estimates will uplift enough people from crippling poverty so that by 2030, 64 percent of the global middle class will be living in Asia. Currently, half of the middle class lives in Europe and the United States. By 2030, that’s estimated to fall to just 22 percent. That’s how quickly the rest of the world is rising.

Contrary to the popular American notion of the world going to hell in a handbasket, it seems that around the globe, the very opposite is happening. There will be some stragglers, perhaps a few chronic problem countries for decades to come, but when we look at the big picture, the world’s future has never been brighter.

Jon Overton is the media editor of Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology. He also writes for The Daily Iowan.

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