Successful Developments in the Third World - The Facts



The inability to read and write retards the development of people, reduces the contribution they can make to the community and in turn holds back the progress of the country. Above all, illiterates are vulnerable to those who are literate; fosters the unequal distribution of power and makes self reliance that much more difficult.

Today, for the first time, there are more literate than illiterate people in the world - a development that augers well for the future.


It is now widely accepted that conventional schooling alone will not overcome illiteracy in the developing world. Enough schools cannot be built, and exclusive educational efforts in this direction sacrifice the adult illiterates. NEVERTHELESS schools do provide the best possible chance for individuals to achieve literacy, at the most receptive period during their lives.

* For the period 1960-1975 enrolment in primary schools in the developing world has doubled. * FOR THE FIRST TIME more children in the 6-11 age group in the Third World are in school than out of school (these figures exclude China, Vietnam and North Korea). * By 1975, only 121 million (38 per cent) of 6-11 year olds in the developing world were not enrolled in schools. In 1970 it was 212 million.

The illiteracy rate is generally defined as that proportion of the adult population 15 years or older unable to read or write. The table below is based on the most recent data available.

Source - ‘Trends and Predictions in Enrolment by Level of Education and by Age’, UNESCO 1977.

Source - ‘The Assault on World Poverty: Problems of Rural Development, Education and Health’ Published for the World Bank (John Hopkins University Press, 1975). Based on UNESCO data.


The general health standards of the people of the underdeveloped world are better than ever before. This is shown by the decreasing proportion of children who die in infancy, and the increasing life expectancy figures (see ‘Longer Lives’ below). Contributing to this progress has been the steady improvement in health facilities and more important, better sanitation.


There is probably no single factor with a greater effect on the health and well-being of a community than the provision of an ample and convenient supply of clean water. Water-borne diseases can account for half the illness-induced deaths in many under­developed countries, and could be prevented by such supplies. An efficient sewage disposal system is part and parcel of the water supply problem. For too often seepage into the drinking water brings ill health.

The number of Third World people with access to clean water, and having adequate sewage disposal facilities rose significantly in the first half of the 1970s.

Source - Centre for Development Planning, Projections and Policies of the United Nations Secretariat, based on data furnished by the World Health Organisation.


Expectation of life at birth 1950-1975

One of the best indicators of an improved standard of living for Third World people is if more live to old age. Life expectancy figures have been steadily going up since 1950. "In all areas, the expectation of life at birth has increased - by up to ten years - in the past quarter century." (World Health Organisation, 1976 World Health Statistic Report).

Note: No country with less than one million population included.

Source: World Population Trends & Policies Vol. 1 1977.

Development's brighter side

There are many ways to measure success, and by many measurements the achievements of the recent past have been enormous. To quote one institution in particular where there is no shortage of slide rules: ‘The developing countries have grown impressively over the last 25 years; income per person has increased by almost three per cent a year, with the annual growth rate accelerating from about two per cent in the 1950s to 3.4 per cent in the 1960s . . . Economic growth in the developing countries has exceeded original expectations, and their physical capacity for further development has been further strengthened.’

But even the World Bank has to admit that: ‘Growth rates have generally been lower in the Low Income countries of Africa and Asia,’ the Bank tells us, adding in a throw-away manner, that this is where the majority of the world’s poor live. ‘In countries accounting for half the population of the developing world, income per person has risen by less than two per cent a year . . . About 800 million people still live in absolute poverty, with incomes too low to ensure adequate nutrition, and without access to essential public services. Many of these people have experienced no improvement in their living standards; and in countries where economic growth has been slow, the living standards of the poor may even have deteriorated. The numbers in poverty alone are a stark measure of how much remains to be done.’

True. But what does the Bank propose that the poor should do? It proposes that they should grow, grow out of their poverty, grow into development. Yet if growth really is the answer it is going to have to take place at a phenomenal rate, even on the Bank’s own evidence, to solve problems like unemployment and underemployment in the Third World: ‘Though world population growth is believed to have peaked in the early 1970s, the earlier rapid growth will add more than 500 million people to the labour force in developing countries between 1975 and the end of this century.’

That burgeoning labour force will be parallelled by a growth of the youthful population and a growth in the numbers of elderly dependents too. Clearly, not even the most optimistic financial fortune teller could honestly predict an economic expansion in the Third World that will even match, much less overtake these other trends.

This is why the World Bank does make the occasional nod in the direction of the need for ‘fundamental social change’. But an occasional nod is not good enough; the old remedies simply will not do. While the world economic system remains rigidly structured between the have’s and the have not’s, those with money and wealth and property and those without any of those things, then growth alone can never be enough.

On the contrary, growth without social change, can only be a cosmetic exercise: grease paint on a withered frightened face. It has to be admitted, equally, however that social change without growth may be no better a remedy. ‘Radical’ governments brought to power on the crest of a wave of egalitarian enthusiasm often find that all they have to re-distribute is poverty. When that happens the forces of reaction quickly find a rallying point.

So where is development’s brighter side? Certainly it is not to be found by means of a slide rule. It is a quality rather than a quantity; an alchemy of commonsense and innovative foresight that changes people’s lives for the better. Wherever we have taken control of our own destiny with our own hands there is a little spark of light. Wherever we have been sceptical of the planners and planned for ourselves, the brightness shows. Wherever we have stopped trying to grow into shoes that will always be too big for us and instead fashioned a sturdy pair of walking boots of our own we have changed the world.

This issue of the New Internationalist focusses on such attempts by ordinary people, by the poor and the not so poor, to change the structure of the world around them. It offers no prescriptions, no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ paths to the millenium. Indeed, if there is a lesson in it at all it is that there is no millenium. But equally, there is no such thing as a status quo that people cannot change when it ceases to serve their interests, as events in Iran and Nicaragua have shown.

Ironically, change is the only constant. As never before, 800 million people today have nothing to lose but their chains and a world to win.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop