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Runaway consumption widens gap
between rich and poor

A summary of the results of 1998's United Nations' Human Development report, focusing on consumption patterns and their effects on the more than one billion people who cannot meet their basic daily needs.


Every year since 1990, the United Nations Development Programme has commissioned the Human Development Report by an independent team of experts to explore major issues of global concern. The report looks beyond per capita income as a measure of human progress by also assessing it against such factors as average life expectancy, literacy and overall well-being. It argues that human development is ultimately "a process of enlarging people’s choices."

This year’s report focuses on the consumption of goods and services and examines how this can advance or hinder human progress. Despite a dramatic surge in consumption in many countries, more than one billion* people lack the opportunity to consume in ways that would allow them to meet their most basic needs.

Global consumption of goods and services will top US$24 trillion this year, twice the figure for 1975. People are consuming more in food, energy, education, transportation, communication and entertainment than ever before. People are also living longer and enjoying greater personal freedom because of better access to health services, education, productive resources, credit and technologies. But the human consequences of current consumption patterns are unacceptable according to the Report 1998, commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The report finds that gross inequalities in consumption opportunities have excluded over one billion people who fail to meet even their basic consumption requirements.

Among the 4.4 billion people who live in developing countries, almost three-fifths live in communities without basic sanitation; almost one-third are without safe drinking water; one-quarter lack adequate housing; one-fifth live beyond reach of modern health services; one-fifth of the children do not get as far as grade five in school, and an equal percentage are undernourished. For most of the world’s very poor, transportation is non-existent: everyday-chores, including the gathering of fuel and water, is done on foot.

"Abundance of consumption is no crime," says UNDP Administrator, James Gustave Speth. "But it is scandalous that the poor are unable to consume enough to meet even their most basic needs."

The report finds that, with the globalization of markets, demand for luxury items and services is exploding, even in traditionally poor communities. What was considered a luxury 20 years ago is now a necessity - a private car for every middle-class family in France, a wrist watch for every rural family in India, a refrigerator for every family in China.

Between 1975 and 1995, the number of radios sold in Africa increased by more than 400 per cent; television sets in Latin America by more than 500 per cent; automobiles in East Asia by 1,400 per cent. Personal computer sales in the Republic of Korea are more than double those of Norway. Annual sales of televisions in Brazil, Chile and the Republic of Korea are at or above the levels of most industrialized countries. Cable TV subscriptions in China increased from 11 million in 1990 to 35 million in 1995.

The report notes that, despite these high growth rates in consumption, developing countries are nowhere near catching up with levels of consumption in the world’s richest nations.

The wealthiest one-fifth of the world’s people:

  • consume 45 per cent of all the meat and fish, the poorest fifth less than five per cent; average protein consumption in France is 115 grammes a day; in Mozambique, 32 grammes.
  • consume 58 per cent of total energy, the poorest fifth less than four per cent; the highest-income countries generate 65 per cent of the world’s electricity.
  • have 74 per cent of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth 1.5 per cent; Sweden, Switzerland and the United States have more than 600 telephone lines per 1,000 people. Afghanistan, Cambodia and Chad have one telephone per 1,000.
  • consume 84 per cent of all paper, the poorest fifth 1.1 per cent; the average industrialized country consumes 78.2 tons of paper per 1,000 people, the average for the poorest countries is 0.4 tons per 1,000.
  • own 87 per cent of the world’s vehicles, the poorest fifth less than 1 per cent; industrialized countries have an average of 405 automobiles per 1,000 people. The countries of sub-Saharan Africa average 11 per 1,000, East Asia and South Asia, five.

Unequal income distribution translates into social exclusion when a society’s value system places too much importance on what a person possesses rather than what a person is or can do. "A teenager without fashionable brand-name shoes may feel ashamed among his peers at school. In rural India, a young woman can be excluded from marriage where standards for dowry are beyond the means of her family."

The report warns that when social standards rise faster than incomes, consumption patterns become unbalanced. "Household spending for conspicuous consumption can crowd out such essentials as food, education, health care, child care and saving for a secure future."

Pressure on the environment

Runaway growth in consumption is placing unprecedented pressure on the environment and putting those who consume the least in double jeopardy. While rising consumption in developing countries is also stressing the environment, consumption levels are not even close to those of industrialized countries. The burning of fossil fuels has almost quintupled since 1950 and the wealthiest one-fifth of the world’s people consume about 53 per cent of the total.

Per capita carbon dioxide emissions are 21 metric tons a year in the United States compared with three metric tons in China.

The poorest one-fifth of the world’s people, who are responsible for just three per cent of carbon dioxide emissions, live in low-lying regions that are most vulnerable to the rising sea levels associated with global warming. With a one metre rise in sea level, Bangladesh would lose 17 per cent of its land area. Egypt would lose 12 per cent and seven million Egyptians would lose their homes. Much of the land mass of small island nations, such as Maldives and Tuvalu, would also disappear beneath the waves.

The global marine-fish catch has quadrupled since 1950 and the consumption of fresh water has almost doubled since 1960. Wood consumption for industrial and domestic fuel is 40 per cent higher than it was 25 years ago. But here again, the report observes, poor people benefit least and suffer the most painful consequences of unsustainable consumption habits. Fish is the main source of protein for almost one billion people in developing countries, but wasteful practices by industrialized nations have depleted many fish stocks and pushed prices beyond the reach of the poor.

Scarcity of safe drinking water forces many millions of poor people to rely on unclean sources that are the main source of some two billion cases of diarrhoea each year, and a leading cause of death among infants and small children. The high cost and shortage of modern fuels in poor communities forces many millions of people, mostly women, to cook their food over smokey fires fueled by wood and animal dung. The report notes that almost two-thirds of the 2.7 million global deaths related to air pollution each year are caused by indoor smoke and fumes in poor households.

The good news is that while consumption has reached record levels, the use of non-renewable resources has slowed, new reserves have been discovered, consumption has shifted in favour of products and services that are less material-intensive, energy efficiency has improved and recycling has gained popularity. Vocal alliances for protection of the environment have also helped to make some consumers more concerned about their impact on the environment.

"Consumers, civil society and governments must forge alliances for new patterns of consumption," says Richard Jolly, the principal co-ordinator of the report. "The world needs patterns of consumption that share resources, not divide societies; that strengthen people’s capacities, not diminish them; that are socially responsible, not destructive of the well-being of others; that are sustainable and do not degrade the natural resource base and environment for present and future generations."

Consumption, notes the report, is the lifeblood of much human progress and the real issue is not consumption, but its patterns and effects: "Some suggest that developing countries should restrain their consumption in order to limit environmental damage," it states. "But this would mean prolonging the already scandalously deep and extensive deprivation for future generations. "

*The ‘billions’ used in this article are US billions (a thousand millions).

From the November 1998 issue of Share International


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005