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The Development Challenge at Home

Do developed countries treat the poor of other countries the same way they treat their own?

July 24, 2002

Do developed countries treat the poor of other countries the same way they treat their own?

In major industrial countries such as France and the United States, development in general is seen as a far-away problem. We readily acknowledge that the great challenge for the global economy is to lift the incomes of poor people in Asia, in Africa and in Latin America. At the same time, we often think of development as somebody else's problem.

But what we tend to forget is that there is another development challenge — and one that is much closer to home. Even in the wealthiest countries in the world, we face very similar problems. Viewed in that light, the experiences of developing countries ultimately offer lessons for us as well.

We know, of course, that income disparities have been growing for many years in the developed world. There are those people who are fortunate enough to be well-educated and adaptable to the rapidly changing economic environment.

For them, the information revolution has been a truly wonderful time. It has given them the means to work more productively — and to use their time more wisely. Also, it allows them to join with their fellows in other countries to create a truly global community of scholars and of professionals in their many fields of endeavor.

But the information revolution has left many people behind. On the world stage, there has been much discussion of this issue. It is understood that the "digital divide" may leave a significant portion of the world's population behind — without the opportunity to compete in the new economy.

But the negative consequences of the underachievement are by no means limited to developing countries. In fact, we in Europe have long been too complacent about our own system in this regard.

On the one hand, we believed, correctly, that our overall system is more humane that the U.S. approach — and that it helps to eliminate the huge disparities of income that seem to characterize the United States.

And yet, we have to recognize that the technological revolution threatens to sweep away that assumption. In the old industrial towns of France and Germany, we find workers who cannot adjust to the rapidly changing circumstances of the global economy.

Worse, we find ghettos of immigrants — poorly educated and poorly assimilated — right in the midst of our own societies. In my view, our inability to create the opportunities for higher income and economic success for all of these people is every bit as shameful as our inability to foster healthy development in so many third-world countries.

One might add that the problems of the poor at home and the problems of the developing countries are similar in certain ways.

The developing countries rely heavily on natural resources for their basic income — and prices of natural resources have been falling for many years.

Similarly, workers in old-line industries essentially still rely to a remarkable extent on their muscle power.

And the value of that once-enobled characteristic is falling by the year in the marketplace.

When society asks for fewer and fewer laborers — just as it asks for less and less steel and wheat — those who produce those items will find themselves racing against impoverishment. That is true whether they live in Africa — or in Europe.

Are there lessons we can learn from these similarities? Certainly, we would not put our own people in debt — as we have done to the developing countries.

In fact, we at least allow people to declare bankruptcy — and start their financial lives over. The least we can for developing countries is to quickly create a method to write off the horrible and useless debts that now fetter them.

Second, individuals and countries need, most of all, opportunities. Educational opportunities top the list here. The lessons in both cases are clear.

The industrialized countries must be willing to explode the barriers that allow top-ranked schools and universities to create an elite. Wider systems of colleges — and effective teaching at all levels — must be our watchword.

At the same time, we must end the scandal of illiteracy and poor education in the developing world. Just as the poor in the developed world need a broader system of schools, the poor in the developing world need access to education — sometimes even at the most basic level.

Most important, however, is that we begin to think differently about development. Until now, we have viewed development as an issue to be tackled at a country level.

France, for example, grandly gives aid to Côte d'Ivoire or Morocco. That aid is important. But it is even more important to see development as a responsibility of those of us who are fortunate enough to benefit from the technological revolution that is making others poor.

Development economics has a goal — to bring poor countries into the ranks of the rich ones.

I would like to put forward a more ambitious goal — to bring poor people, wherever they are, into the ranks of the well-to-do.

That will require that we look at home as much as we look abroad — that we examine ourselves as much as we are willing to criticize and help others.