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Introduction: Social goals and economic reality

Richard Jolly,
Deputy Executive Director, Programmes, UNICEF
Economic and social progress must walk together, or they will hold each other back

The Progress of Nations 1995 records the significant advances being made by many countries in health, nutrition, education, family planning, and progress for women. It reports, for example, the steep fall in the number of children being crippled by polio, and the gains being made against the handful of common diseases which, in alliance with poor nutrition, kill more than 7 million young children a year. It records, also, the quite spectacular advances being made against the micronutrient deficiencies which are among the major specific causes of death and disability for the children of the developing world. Other chapters chart the increase in schooling, the steady rise in the proportion of people with access to safe water, and the continued slowing down of birth rates in every region of the world.

Many of the achievements recorded in these pages are the result of conscious efforts to set and reach specific, time-bound targets. And though they are the product of sustained and often unacknowledged efforts by developing country governments, by United Nations agencies, and by thousands of non-governmental organizations, many of them owe a great deal to the inspiration of one man.

As Executive Director of UNICEF from 1980 until his death in January 1995, James P. Grant was a driving force behind the process of setting goals and mobilizing the political, social, and financial resources to achieve them. To catalyse this process he devised the 1990 World Summit for Children, which brought almost all the world's nations to a common agreement on social development goals to be achieved by the year 2000. Progress towards these goals is recorded throughout these web pages.

Jim Grant believed that the struggle to set and achieve these specific targets was part and parcel of a historic struggle to improve the human condition. In the face of all the bad news which daily assaults our hope and optimism, he insisted on lifting our eyes from the headlines of the day to the horizons of our history. The last 50 years, he constantly reminded us, have seen average life expectancy in the developing nations rise from 40 to over 60 years, child death rates fall from 300 to 100 per 1000 births, and adult literacy rates double to 70%.

But it would be a mistake to confuse the optimism and determination that Jim Grant brought to this cause with the notion that such progress is in any way automatic, or that the social indicators that measure human well-being are on some kind of effortless and irresistible upward trajectory.

In particular, it would be a mistake to assume that progress can be accelerated by the exclusive pursuit of social goals in a deteriorating economic or physical environment, or that the worst aspects of poverty can be abolished without changing the unjust and exploitative economic relationships, between and within nations, which deny poor countries and poor people the chance to earn a fair return for their labours.

The Progress of Nations records the successes and failures of nation states in converting available resources into people's well-being. It is shot through with examples to show that economic performance is not everything, and that many poor nations are achieving levels of health, nutrition, and education that far surpass those of richer nations. The concept of the national performance gap systematizes these contrasts and comparisons in order to show how well each nation is performing in relation to the average for its level of per capita GNP.

But evident as it is that some countries are extracting more social miles per economic gallon, the fact remains that economic and social progress must proceed side by side or they will eventually and inevitably hold each other back.

After the failure of `trickle down' in the 60s, the frustrated hopes of a new economic order in the 70s, and the `lost decade' of the 80s, much of the poor world is now reaching a crisis point in its struggle for economic development. Joblessness, landlessness, and increasingly desperate poverty have been allowed to set up the destructive synergisms of rapid population growth, increasing environmental pressures, rising social tensions, and political instabilities of a kind and on a scale which will eventually leave no community untouched. And unless national governments and the international community renew the quest for the new economic policies and relationships that will not only create growth but also ensure its more equitable distribution, then there is a clear danger that these pressures will overwhelm both past progress and future hopes.

Issues of trade and market access, commodity dependence and diversification, aid and investment, debt servicing and defence spending, land reform and labour-intensive increases in productivity still largely determine whether families have the kind of useful and remunerative work which enables them to meet their own needs by their own efforts and to build a stake in their own futures and in the stability of their societies.

Much of the responsibility for meeting this challenge lies with the established industrialized nations that still control three quarters of the world's wealth and dominate the structures of trade, aid, and finance within which the developing world must earn its living. So far the rich nations have not, in the main, taken this challenge very seriously. And it can only be hoped that the World Summit for Social Development held in Copenhagen in early 1995 might succeed, where many other conferences and commissions and reports have failed, in getting across the new urgency of the old struggle for economic development. Certainly there were enough responsible voices raised in Copenhagen to alert the industrialized nations to the fact that they are now playing in the last chance saloon of peaceful cooperative solutions to these problems.

No one today can seriously question the importance of conscious attempts to set and achieve measurable social development targets and to bring about specific improvements in the human condition. Such progress has not and will not come about as an automatic result of economic advance. But at the same time, the effort to achieve all that it is now possible to achieve in human health and well-being cannot ultimately succeed if it is pursued as an alternative to, or a distraction from, the fundamental problems of achieving sustainable economic growth and ensuring its more equitable distribution.



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