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David Tereshchuk

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Under-reported: Man-Bites-Dog Story of Global Poverty

Posted: 03/21/2012 6:34 pm

Oh wow! -- a media storm over the great Goldman Sachs being disavowed by one of its own in an Op-Ed article (in the New York Times) that became, controversially, a news story. Overtaken only by a storm over a semi-journalistic public radio show (This American Life) disavowing one of its own episodes attacking the great Apple, Inc.

Amid all this tortured media navel-gazing, I found myself staring instead at some other quite different information -- straight news, not opinion pages material -- that is going largely unattended.

I've been helped here by a whistle-blower who is coincidentally another Goldman Sachs man. It's actually their top Asset Management executive, Jim O'Neill. And "flag-waver" or "horn-tooter" are probably better terms for him -- since we're not talking about raising a disturbing alarm here. Pretty much the opposite. And it's nothing to do with Goldman.

Indeed, it is some really good international news that's evading our close attention, even though O'Neill -- an astute man who, like me, I'll say gratuitously, attended high school in Manchester, England -- has been eager this week to tell anyone who will listen.

The trouble is, this good news seems counterintuitive. There's been a global financial crisis, right?Along with that there's been a serious price hike in food-prices, and now oil-prices, correct? Unemployment is staying stubbornly high in countries desperate for post-recession recovery, isn't it?

And remember the United Nations' Millennium Goals from the turn of the century? Especially that crucial First Goal which committed the international community to the lofty ambition of "halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty" by 2015. If you've been following the not-very-numerous but always well-meaning media outlets who care about these issues, that goal has for years appeared doomed to failure, given the grim global conditions as reported.

Well, the good news is that the facts contradict that pessimism.

A World Bank report by its Development Research Group reveals the surprising secret... the world's poor are now doing better, in fact.

Somewhat astonishingly, if we look at the commonly accepted measure of "extreme poverty" -- meaning living on less that $1.25 dollars a day -- then the goal has already been achieved -- was in fact achieved by 2010, a full five years earlier than the target.

While in 1990, when the goal was being discussed and formulated, nearly half the developing world's population (actually 43 percent, well over two-and-one-half billion people) lived below that daily income level, and by the time the first decade of the 21st Century was coming to its close, that proportion had dropped to less than a quarter (22 percent -- or 1.29 billion people).

Here's the Bank's own multlmedia summary of the findings, at a little over three minutes:

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"And to top it all off," says Goldman's O'Neill, who can scarcely contain his glee, "it is those who were the absolute worst off that have made the most progress".

What indeed is perhaps the big surprise-within-the-surprise is that, while we might imagine the improvement can be ascribed to the vast and very singular industrialization of China ... that simply isn't the case. Even if you exclude China's case -- gargantuan part of the gobal landscape though it is -- the global improvement is still enormous.

And Africa -- so often considered simplistically as the mother of all basket-cases -- turns out to be aggressively improving its grim statistics. Sub-Saharan Africa -- generally speaking the poorest region of the world -- had by 2008, says the report, reduced that $1.25-a-day poverty rate to 47 percent, the first time it ever dipped below the 50 percent level. And since then it has continued to see falling numbers for the extreme poor, setting in reverse the continent's previously dispiriting, steady upsurge through the 1980s and '90s.

I'm reminded of working with Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General at the time the Goals were published to great fanfare, and his speechwriter Edward Mortimer, as we made a TV program about the world financial scene. Annan was anxious that we emphasize what he impishly (or sardonically?) called "Africa's best kept secret," meaning that a lot of money could be made, quite legitimately, through quite above-board transactions, in Africa. He would extol the healthy rates of return at the Johannesburg or Lagos stock exchanges, rolling in then at 25 percent or more.

It's good to be able to point up some under-appreciated economic betterment taking place in Africa nowadays, and taking place to the benefit of more than just the financial elite.

Just as it's good for any journalist, once in a while, to write a "Man Bites Dog" kind of story.

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Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.

 

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