The Progress of Nations

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The Roll of the Dice: Facing the odds

In fact, the 6 billionth baby has less than 1 chance in 10 of being born into relative prosperity, as a member of the majority in an industrialized country or of the wealthy minority in a developing one. On the other hand, the child has 3 chances in 10 of being born into extreme poverty — and 4 in 10 of being only marginally better off.

Half the world's poor are children, and more babies are being born into poverty now than ever before. Never in history have we seen such numbers.

Far less likely, the roll of the dice will bring the baby into a universe almost unimaginably rich in resources. Her horizons will stretch as wide as the world itself. At the flick of a switch, energy accumulated over eons in the earth's crust will provide the child with an extraordinary array of services and conveniences.

With the tap of a computer key, the accumulated knowledge of the world's libraries can be at her fingertips. At a very young age, she will be able to exchange messages, play games and make friends with children thousands of miles away.

Meanwhile, advances in medical science are rapidly increasing the prospects for human longevity. If present trends continue, it is estimated that some 70,000 children who are born in the United States in the first year of the 21st century will be around to see the dawning of the 22nd.

But along with technological advances and material prosperity, it is possible that social isolation and emotional insecurity may lie in her future. Divorce rates are increasing, overwork blights family life, human contact shrinks and the young, increasingly alienated, are treated more as consumers than as children.

At least this 6 billionth child, if born in the developing world, will probably not be isolated or lack human contact. In the village or shanty town most likely to be home, there will be plenty of children to play with, and plenty of relatives and neighbours to take an interest. The child will also, in most cases, be brought up in a religion that will provide spiritual strength.

Yet, while this life may be rich in people, it will be desperately poor in material resources. Energy is likely to be scarce — and if the 6 billionth child is a girl, she will most likely have to trudge miles a day to collect fuel.

And if the child gets and retains a place in class, her school may lack sufficient pencils, let alone books, for her to use.

With half the children of Africa already suffering from illness caused by unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation and a degraded environment, it is almost certain that constant bouts of preventable diseases will sap the child's overall health. His physical and mental development are likely to be stunted by malnutrition, making it unlikely that the 6 billionth child will ever reach his full potential - in fact he may have a shorter lifespan ahead of him than 1999 global standards suggest. A baby born in Malawi or Uganda, for example, is likely to live only half as long as one born in Singapore or Sweden. And reaching her fifth birthday is far from a certainty: One child in three born in countries such as Niger or Sierra Leone, for example, perishes before that milestone.

The 6 billionth child will also find himself in a world where the gap between rich and poor has never been so wide. The richest one fifth of humanity has 82 times the income of the poorest fifth — and consumes 86 per cent of the world's resources.

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