A recent report by a British relief and development agency brings out the plight of 2.4 billion people worldwide, almost all of them in Asia, Africa and Latin America, who suffer from poor sanitation and lack of clean drinking water. More than two million children die every year of diarrhoea and people suffering from water-borne diseases occupy half of the world’s hospital beds, says the British Charity ‘Water Aid and Tearfund’ in a report titled, The Human Waste.
Rapid urbanisation is worsening the crisis. The Bangladesh capital Dhaka has seen its population grow from 250,000 in the early 1970s to 10 million today. In Africa 138 million people lived in the urban areas in 1990. By 2020 the number will go up to 500 million, with 200 million living in cities with a population of a million or more. By 2025, 20 of the 29 sub-Saharan countries will be facing water shortages, up from only 8 in 1990. 80 per cent of the diseases in developing countries are caused by poor hygiene, contaminated water and poor sanitation.
Most of these diseases are preventable if people had access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. An investment of US $ 16 billion a year will halve the number of people without toilets and save millions of lives. This amount is a fraction of the US $ 722 billion the world spent on defence in 1999.
The report calls for increased aid from the West, and urges the British government to give the lead by increasing its overseas aid to 0.7 per cent of the GNP. But Western governments that frequently shed crocodile tears and promise more aid for developing countries, inevitably link aid donations with “sound” policies, implying a no holds barred privatisation by countries wanting to avail of such “benevolence”.
Following the renewed aid pledges by OECD members at the Monterrey conference on poverty held in March 2002, the World Bank issued the “African Development Indicators 2002”, calling on the West to deliver. It pointed out that while African countries have mostly adopted the policies demanded by the West, aid flows are still shrinking. Mozambique, for instance, witnessed a fall in aid from US $ 1 billion in 1990 to US $ 804 million in 1999.
Even if Western governments deliver on the promises made at Monterrey, there is no guarantee that the money will be spent on sanitation. British Development Minister Clare Short said recently in Johannesburg that British capital is looking for countries which provide “good governance”, citing the example of China. The obvious implication is that countries that wield an iron hand to discipline populations can expect increased aid and investment.
The West is now more willing to provide aid to back economic reforms, implying the opening up of the economy, including the strategic public sector industries, to market control.
However, Economist Joseph Stiglitz in a recent article in the Financial Times has pointed out, investment in a market economy misses out on rural roads, on health and education. Overseas aid is money well spent, he has argued, adding that US Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s statement that disbursal of US aid depends on evidence that aid works is just an excuse not to hike their aid commitments. Since more often than not, poor people under corrupt regimes have little say in the running of their governments, denying aid to these countries would be to victimise the poor for no fault of theirs, he says.
Despite increasing economic activity and globalisation, poverty worldwide is on the increase. Some 1.2 billion people now live on less than US $1 a day. Of the 4.4 billion people in developing countries:
60 per cent lack basic sanitation
30 per cent do not have access to clean water
25 per cent lack adequate housing
20 per cent do not have access to acceptable health services
20 per cent of children do not complete the equivalent of primary schooling.
The erosion of public health services and increased medical costs owing to privatisation, along with the handing over of drinking water distribution to the private sector in several countries, will only worsen the crisis in health and sanitation and lead to more preventable deaths and diseases.
[Based on: (i) ‘Report shows impact of poor sanitation on world’s health’ by Barry Mason, on April 18, 2002 in www.wsws.org (ii) COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Overseas aid is money well spent: by Joseph Stiglitz in Financial Times, Apr 15, 2002 (iii) http://www.longman.com.au]