New Internationalist

Successful Developments in the Third World - The Facts

October 1979

A NEW INTERNATIONALIST survey of the substantial progress by the Third World in the education, the health and the life expectancy of its people.


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.

This feature was published in the October 1979 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 080

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