Global capitalism has long lacked for a ringing slogan like "workers of the world unite." It's never too late to find one, and a good candidate -- with apologies to the international charity of the same name -- might be "save the children."
The United Nations Children's Fund just announced that deaths of young children worldwide hit an all-time low, falling beneath 10 million annually. Better practices to protect against disease and to enhance nutrition -- more vaccinations and mosquito nets, more breast-feeding and vitamin A drops -- played a role, but the most important factor in this global good-news story is economic growth.
It is no coincidence that as UNICEF was reporting the drop in child mortality, the World Bank was reporting global poverty rates had fallen as part of an extraordinary worldwide economic boom. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson calls it "far and away the strongest global economy I've seen in my business lifetime." The global economy is growing at a 5 percent clip, higher than the 3 percent of the period from 1960 to 1980 and the 4.7 percent from 1960 to 1980. As U.S. News & World Report points out, "Gross global product is three times as big as it was in 1970"; so the global economy is not only growing faster, but there's more to grow.
In a worldwide instance of trickle-down economics, the growth is diminishing the ranks of the poor. According to the World Bank, developing countries have averaged 3.9 percent growth since 2000, contributing "to rapidly falling poverty rates in all developing regions over the past few years." In 1990, 1.25 billion people lived on less than $1 a day. In 2004, less than a billion did, even though world population increased 20 percent in the interim.
When a developing country gets richer, it means that people living there are less likely to be malnourished and -- as infrastructure improves -- more likely to have access to clean water and to sanitation. This is a boon to health.
A recent article in the journal Lancet concluded that "undernutrition is the underlying cause of a substantial proportion of all child deaths." Malnutrition weakens a child's immune system and makes him more susceptible to diarrhea, malaria, pneumonia and other diseases. Lack of potable water and sanitation -- roughly 1 billion people lack clean water, and 2 billion lack sanitation -- also increases the risk of illness, obviously. Millions die every year from diseases associated with contaminated water and poor sanitation.
China and India have led the way in growth, with the fastest- and second-fastest-growing major economies in the world. Thus, what have been sinks of human misery on a vast scale for centuries are becoming more livable. China accounted for almost all the recent drop in people living on less than $1 a day, experiencing a decline of 300 million since 1990. India has seen its mortality rate for children under the age of 5 decline from 123 per 1,000 in 1990 to 74 in 2005.
Such growth in developing countries is the result of, according to the World Bank, "further integration into world markets, better functioning internal markets and rising demand for many commodities." In short: globalization and capitalism. When a goateed anarcho-syndicalist commits an act of vandalism at an anti-globalization protest, he might think that he's striking a blow against The Man, but he's really rallying against the chance some desperately poor little boy or girl has to live a healthier life.
Because we in the West have reached the sunny uplands of sustained economic development, we can worry about the deleterious second-order effects -- pollution, etc. -- of growth. In too many places around the world, however, economic growth is still a matter of life and death. Governments, philanthropists and activists have been pouring massive resources into fighting AIDS and other diseases in the Third World recently. This is all very commendable, but we can't ignore the main event.
By all means, let's save the world -- help it grow.