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Tackling the 7 billion conundrum

india Updated: Dec 01, 2011 23:11 IST
Abhijit Patnaik
Abhijit Patnaik
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Seven billion is a big number. According to the National Geographic magazine, it will take two hundred years just to count to seven billion out loud. Seven billion steps would take you around the earth 133 times.

The achievements of us as a species in the past half century have been many. People are living longer. In 2010, the average age of the world’s population was 69 years, up from 53 in 1960. In 2008, for the first time, more people lived in urban rather than rural areas. By 2050, 70% of the world's population will be living in cities. Heck, we even sent a man to the moon.

But as glorious as our achievements may be, our collective failures have also been many. Despite healthy economic growth in the last twenty years, many of the basic needs of a population, be it universal health or an end to chronic hunger, have yet to be achieved.

According to data available from the United Nations, little progress has been made in reducing extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. The poverty rate there has declined only marginally, from 58 to 51 per cent between 1990 and 2005. This region, along with Western Asia and parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, is not expected to achieve the poverty reduction targets of the Millennium Development Goals. The estimate of the number of people who will suffer chronic hunger this year is 925 million, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation — down from 1.023 billion in 2009, but still more than the number of undernourished people in 1990 (about 815 million).

The seven billion dollar question is how will these people live in today's world? Does our current global economic growth and distribution model have the ability to cope with the needs and aspirations of so many?

The challenges posed by are many. Space,of course, is not one of them. If all 7 billion people would stand shoulder to shoulder, they would fit in an area as large as the city of angels, Los Angeles.

The real challenge is balance.

Recent developments, from the Jasmine revolution to the Occupy movements in the West, are manifestations of the gross imbalances that plague our societies, reaching a tipping point. In the Arab world, aspirations of generations were quashed by dictatorial regimes. The US/EU problem is, simply put, one of living beyond your means for too long. Such profligacy was bound to catch up. With no jobs, low growth and gradual cutbacks across welfare states, many people are unable to live the typical urban middle-class lifestyle— a house, a car, two holidays a year and sending your kids to college. The developing world has its own issues— high inflation and not enough growth to end poverty.

Why have we not been able to make, despite billions of dollars being spent, a deeper mark on these fundamental goals? The reasons are many.

First, and perhaps the hardest to surmount, is the lack of will; the agency for change. Second, a lack of resources. India's expenditure on health and education has tripled since 2005, but this is still woefully inadequate for the needs of the populace. Lastly, and perhaps most dangerously, it is the asymmetrical distribution of resources that is generated every year. For example, 5% of the world's population consumes 23% of the world's energy. And let's not even get into the income distribution .

A thousand Dharavis?
Leaders of nations have not been able to tackle these deep challenges in the past few decades. Pussyfooting and paying lip-service is their only real achievement. How do we want our people to live? With challenges on the social development and environmental front, a sustainable, low- emission, equitable growth path is the need of the hour.

Take the following example. Cities in developing countries are getting denser. We cannot have a thousand Dharavis, (the 'slum' in Slumdog Millionaire), with a serious lack of safe water, toilets, and garbage collection side-by-side with its 'low emissions' tag (the poor don't consume a lot). Perhaps a billion other city dwellers in developing countries live in such conditions.

It is such cities, the United Nations projects, that will absorb most of the world's population increase between now and 2050-more than two billion people. How their governments respond will affect us all.

Lessons from adversity
It is time for us to approach these issues with a new paradigm. Are there any answers in the developments that are happening now? To take on this seven billion conundrum , leaders need to think beyond development models that have been popular so far— models that built the West. If there is a true meaning to keeping pace with a changing world, the best way is to pick up the right cues from the challenges we face today.

An example of how to create opportunity out of adversity can be seen in our neighbour to the east. Bangladesh suffers regularly from river flooding in the north and cyclones in the south. The displaced, whom many call ‘climate refugees’, end up living in the densely populated slum of Korail in Dhaka. With hundreds of thousands of such migrants already, the capital is in no shape to take in new residents. It's already struggling to provide the most basic services and infrastructure.

Yet, precisely because Bangladesh has so many problems, it has long served as a laboratory for innovative solutions in the developing world. It has bounced back from crisis after crisis, proving itself far more resourceful than sceptics might have guessed. Dhaka is home to BRAC, the largest non-profit organisation in the developing world, which has shown how to provide basic health care and other services with an army of field-workers. Bangladesh also produced the global micro-finance movement, started by Nobel peace prize laureate Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank.

The aspirations in the developing world for the 'good life' have been articulated, consciously or sub-consciously, with the backdrop of a materialistic lifestyle of the West. For decades, the rest of the world has seen only the consumption-led model of growth. It is impossible, environmentally, ecologically, or any other way you can think of, for our planet to sustain billions more living that way. The world can't have a middle class with the same affluence as the US middle class.

And what is true for other parts of the world, holds more true for India— with 18% of the world’s population and almost twice that share of its poor.

The new development paradigm will include more sustainable business models, equitable distribution of wealth and better and more responsible governance. But that is not all.

The challenge for tomorrow's leaders is to stop talking and start putting these models into practice. Otherwise, social backlash and extremism— be it the naxal movement in India or further uprisings across West Asia —will only get more aggravated.

People have for too long associated a nice house with bijli, sadak, paani as a sign of development. Tomorrow's leaders need to redefine this.