Nicholas Kristof writes in the NYT:
IMAGINE having to pick just one of your children to save, while leaving the others to face death.
One of my most searing experiences as a reporter occurred in Cambodia, where I met a woman whose daughter had just died of malaria and who was left caring for seven children and grandchildren.
The woman, Nhem Yen, showed me her one anti-malaria bed net and told me how every evening she agonized over which children to squeeze under it — and which ones to leave out and expose to malarial mosquitoes.
That’s the kind of excruciating question that extreme poverty forces on families.
Most of us couldn’t even comprehend having to make a choice like that.
For thousands of generations, a vast majority of humans have lived brief, illiterate lives marked by disease, disability and the loss of children. As recently as 1980, a slight majority of people in the developing world lived in extreme poverty, defined as surviving on less than $1.25 in today’s money.
So 30 years ago half the developing world were near starvation, or did starve.
The share of people in the developing world who live in extreme poverty has been reduced from 1 in 2 in 1980 to 1 in 5 today, according to the World Bank. Now the aim is to reduce that to almost zero by 2030.
That is a huge gain, and a trend we want to continue.
Timeout for a skeptical question that is both callous and common:
When additional kids survive in poor countries, does that really matter? Isn’t the result just a population explosion leading to famine or war, and more deaths?
That’s a frequent objection, but it’s wrong. When child mortality drops and families know that their children will survive, they are more likely to have fewer babies — and to invest more in them. There’s a well-known path from declining child deaths to declining births, which is why Bangladesh is now down to an average of 2.2 births per woman.
An interesting observation I had not seen before.
Ancient diseases are on the way out. Guinea worm and polio are likely to be eradicated in the coming years. Malaria has been brought under control in many countries, and a vaccine may reduce its toll even further.
AIDS is also receding. Last year in southern Africa, I interviewed coffin-makers who told me grumpily that their businesses are in recession because AIDS is no longer killing large numbers of people.
Good news for most is always bad news for some!
The drop in mortality understates the gains, because diseases don’t just kill people but also leave them disabled or unproductive, wrecking the economy. Poor people used to go blind routinely from disease or were unable to work for want of reading glasses. Now they are much less likely to go blind, and far more likely to get glasses.
These achievements aren’t just the result of work by Western donors or aid groups. Some of the biggest gains resulted from economic growth in China and India. When the poor are able to get jobs, they forge their own path out of poverty.
Their embrace of a market economy has pulled hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty.
The world of extreme poverty and disease that characterized life for most people throughout history may now finally be on its way out.
I’d love to see that in my lifetime.