Measuring progress

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Measuring progress.

Peter Adamson, the editor who started the New Internationalist looks at how the world has changed since the magazine began. He says we need to fight against inequality now again.

The first magazine - The Internationalist - was produced with simple materials. The main story was an interview with Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania, which had just become independent. He was the first person to finish university in his country, he translated Shakespeare into Swahili, he wrote African Socialism, and he was a political hero for many of us then. A few years before, in our last year of university, we had started a movement called Third World First. We wanted to raise money for charities like Oxfam by getting students to commit to giving one per cent of their incomes every year to helping other countries. More than 25,000 students agreed in the first 18 months and we started The Internationalist, three times a year, to keep them interested. Two years later, Oxfam and Christian Aid supported us in starting a monthly magazine for everyone, not just students. So, 40 years ago this month, the New Internationalist started. It cost 25 pence (60 cents) and had an interview with President Kaunda of Zambia.


In Mumbai, India – fighting to meet basic human needs is ‘the main problem of the 20th century’. Cubo Images/Robert Harding

Nyerere and Kaunda were not random choices. Both of them had said that 10 per cent of all overseas aid, including the charity aid, should be spent on educating the public in the ‘first world’ about why we have world poverty. They wanted everyone to understand that their poverty was not the result of losing a historical game of chance; it was the result of some economic relationships, from the time of the colonies. This made a few people rich and made most people poor. This (or similar) has been one of the main messages of the New Internationalist all the time.


When I look back to those early magazines, I have mixed feelings – about 10 percent pride and ninety percent embarrassment. Pride: for 40 years, the New Internationalist co-operative has helped to fight for a fairer world and we are proud that we were involved in the beginning of this. Embarrassment: we talked far too much, but we knew far too little. We were in our early twenties and did not know enough to understand that we didn’t know much. But this did not stop us from writing with confidence about international aid, trade, finance, business agreements, world hunger, population change, and many other topics that we thought we knew well enough to begin telling the world about.

This confidence came from being young and inexperienced but also from the spirit of the times. And that spirit was very optimistic. At home in the UK, the hard, cold 1950s had changed into a decade of economic growth and social freedom. Harold Macmillan said in 1957 that ‘you will see prosperity like we have never had in the history of this country’ and this seemed to be coming true. Living standards were rising, inequalities were slowly disappearing, and the working class were mostly in jobs, in unions, and aware of their power. Socially, too, things were changing. The first New Internationalist also had an article by Roy Jenkins, the son of a coalminer. When he was Home Secretary (1965-67), he had ended capital punishment, made abortion legal, ended theatre censorship and made homosexuality no longer criminal.

In the world, too, there was more optimism. There was a lot of change. Many colonies had become independent, many now had idealistic leaders. In the 1960s, more than 40 new countries had become members of the United Nations. The first UN ‘Development Decade’ was started in 1961 and they had reached most of their targets for growth. By 1975, after the OPEC shock, most of the world’s countries were changing the rules of world trade with the United Nations. Now, maybe this seems naïve. But then, even the main political groups all seemed to agree that we needed a new economic system. UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim called it ‘the price of world peace’ and the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, said this:

My government agrees that the balance between the rich and poor countries of the world is wrong and we must make it right… we must share out the wealth of the world in a more equal way to help poor and suffering people. This means new agreements in world economies and in trade.’

Ending poverty

Of course it was not all good. There were also the big concerns of: the arms race and the Cold War, population growth, famines predicted for the Indian sub-continent, environmental problems, the new power of multinationals, the realization that economic growth would not solve all the problems. But in 1973 none of these problems took away our confidence in the progress of the future.

We all thought we would win the war against poverty. We all thought we understood the meaning of development. The most important phrase of the 1970s, and of the New Internationalist, was ‘meeting basic human needs’. And we all hoped was that in the future, every man, woman and child on earth would have enough food, adequate shelter, safe water, basic healthcare, schools, and the ability to decide how many children to have.

The world is more complex today. New Internationalist is now more sophisticated and better-informed. But its 40th anniversary is a good opportunity to look at those hopes again.

In the very poorest countries, countries with a 2010 per capita gross national income of under $1,000, the achievements are amazing. Average life expectancy has increased from just over 40 years to just under 60 years. Child malnutrition and child death rates are now under half of what they were. Almost all children go to school for, on average, more than eight years of education.

The average family size for the world is now half what it was - from 6 to about 3 children per couple. This quick change has amazed even the optimists of the 1970s.

Also amazing is the progress against the main diseases and disabilities which affected millions of families every year in the early 1970s. Immunization, for example, has risen from under 20 per cent to almost 80 per cent across the low- and middle-income world. In the 1970s, more than 500,000 children were paralyzed every year by polio; in 2012, there were just over 200. About 70 per cent of families are now protected from lack of Vitamin A and iodine - this used to cause blindness, mental problems, frequent illness and early death of many millions in the 1970s. The most difficult problem has been malaria, especially in Africa. But now, 75 per cent of the hundreds of millions of people at risk from malaria use mosquito nets with insecticide, so malaria is now slowly going away.


Jaideep Hardikar

There are many more successes; and this shows amazing progress in 40 years. So why are we not all happy?

The excluded

We have definitely made progress in meeting basic human needs. But there is another story in these 40 years. In many countries, national statistics have often hidden the fact that the poorest people have often not been part of the great successes. We can now see this from different data. The progress – in income or life expectancy, malnutrition or mortality rates, or access to basic services – has often not included the poorest people. One example is the enormous achievement India, where they immunized 80 per cent of the children in the country. But less than 40 per cent of children from the poorest families.

Of course we cannot expect the same progress everywhere. And surely the advantages of progress will soon be available to all. But there are reasons why the poorest people have not been included. Most of the excluded are the people who have no political power, no social group, people who are geographically isolated, or who suffer ethnic or cultural discrimination. We must not forget that many of the most basic problems – no safe water, diseases, or not enough good food – affect people who are least likely to be reached by basic services. (This problem is obvious, but people usually say that a problem has been solved if the improvement gets to 75 per cent of a population).


The story of the fight to meet basic human needs – the great problem of the 20th century – has now become the great development challenge of the present. Not including the poorest people in the improvements is part of a huge story of growing inequality in almost all countries, rich or poor. The 1970s were an important time of change in equality. In the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, people were getting more equal in the 30 years before the mid-1970s; but in the last 40 years, the opposite has happened. And the inequality is getting quicker recently.

But the progress of the majority has changed the political dynamics. In the past, the poor had the power of the majority, but now they are in many countries a minority with no power. The traditional socio-economic pyramid is changing into a diamond with the largest part in the upper middle. This makes it easier for the new majority to give no attention or respect to people at the bottom.

We have no space here to talk about everything that creates this inequality:– knowledge-based economies, globalization, lobbying and political power of people who benefit from very different new economic order from the one we hoped for in the 1970s. We have no space to say that, of course, ‘basic needs’ keeps changing and poverty is relative to time and place. But I will end with the prediction that it is equality, together with environmental concerns, that will be the great challenge of the next 40 years. I have a small proposal about what can be done about it.


Social statistics and targets are very important in the achievements and they help us work towards the Millennium Development Goals. But this has not always been so. Most of the progress of the first UN Development Decade in the 1960s was measured by economic indicators. Then, in the early 1970s, when people found that economic growth targets had been met but the poor had seen very little change, people fought for new indicators. The new indicators would show progress for people, not economies. Now we use social indicators such as average life expectancy, school enrolment and literacy, child malnutrition and mortality rates. At the time, this seemed a radical way to measure progress.

Today we need an equivalent revolution. In the future, progress should be measured not by statistics of national averages but by data that shows what is happening to the poorest 20 per cent – in any country and for any indicator that measures human well-being. Even five years ago, this suggestion would not have been possible statistically. But now it is possible to get statistics about the poorest 20 per cent – the “bottom quintile”, or Q1, as the statisticians call it.

Statistics and measurement often seem abstract and lifeless. But they have incredible power. Measurement guides policy, provides information for advocacy, makes it possible to be transparent and accountable, and gets the media and public to debate. The choice of measures is the clearest statement of aims and priorities. And if we want to make progress and protest against the Age of Inequality, as in the 1970s, we need new measures to show that new priority. The increasing use of Q1 – what is happening to the lives of the poorest 20 per cent – could be similar to the effort in the 1970s to use social measures with the economic measures of progress. And it could help the message that, in the future, progress that does not include the poorest people is not progress at all.

Peter Adamson left New Internationalist in 1980, and then had a distinguished career with UNICEF. He still works regularly for its Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, Italy.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: