Brazil's boom; Africa's pentecostals; food fears and more reasons to invest in health: highlights from this week's Economist

Another bumper issue of the Economist this week. Here are some snapshots from my four favourite articles:

Politics: A three page feature on Brazil, as its election campaign kicks off today. Constitutional term limits means that Lula is stepping down, despite 75% approval ratings (amazing, after eight years in office), but the country’s success means his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, is ahead in the polls:

“The statistics of social progress in Brazil are remarkable. The number of people living in poverty has fallen by 20m under Lula, from 49.5m (or 28.5% of the total) in 2003 to 29m (16% of the total) in 2008. Although the world recession and its brief impact in Brazil temporarily halted the progress, it did not reverse it. The number of Brazilians too poor to feed themselves properly has fallen from 17% of the population in 2003 to 8.8% in 2008.

At the same time Brazil’s notoriously unequal distribution of income is becoming a bit less so (see chart). The Gini coefficient, a standard Brazil econ statsstatistical measure of inequality, has fallen steadily since 2001 (though it remains very high by international standards). Over that period the income of the poorest 10% of the population has grown at 8% a year, while that of the richest tenth has grown at only 1.5% a year.

In various ways Brazil is starting to become a more homogeneous society. Regional inequality has been diminishing, too: average income in the poor north-east has been growing faster than the national average. A majority of Brazilians (some 52%, up from 44% in 2002) now belong to what marketers call social class C, or the lower-middle class, meaning that they have a monthly household income of between 1,064 and 4,561 reais.

This progress stems from a mixture of faster economic growth and government policies. Though there is debate about the details, around half of the fall in poverty comes from higher income from employment. Better social policy accounts for a big share of the fall in inequality—or at least of the narrowing of the bottom of the pyramid. Bolsa Família has been particularly effective in helping the poorest.”

Of course, it remains to be seen whether evan all that is enough to counter the gloom after Brazil’s premature ejection from the World Cup……

African pentecostalsFaiths and Development: The rise of the Pentecostal Protestant churches in Africa is transforming society and politics in the region, and not always in good ways. The new churches campaign against corruption, but also exhibit an alarming degree of homophobia.

“About 17m Africans described themselves as born-again Christians in 1970. Today the figure has soared to more than 400m, which accounts for over a third of Africa’s population. And they are now having a noticeable effect on public-policy debates in East Africa. Regardless of the outcome of the vote on the constitution in Kenya, for example, their interventions are likely to make abortion a defining political issue in the country. Similarly, the efforts of new churches in neighbouring Uganda have made political controversies out of homosexuality and the right of Muslims to convert to Christianity.”

Science and Tech: The return of wheat rust threatens catastrophe for one of the world’s major food crops.

“It is sometimes called the “polio of agriculture”: a terrifying but almost forgotten disease. Wheat rust is not just back after a 50-year absence, but spreading in new and scary forms. In some ways it is worse than child-crippling polio, still lingering in parts of Nigeria. Wheat rust has spread silently and speedily by 5,000 miles in a decade. It is now camped at the gates of one of the world’s breadbaskets, Punjab. In June scientists announced the discovery of two new strains in South Africa, the most important food producer yet infected.”

Researchers are scrambling to respond, but face huge obstacles compared to the last time, when Green Revolution spread seeds that were both higher yield and contained a gene that combatted wheat rust (the new rust attack has found a way round the gene):

“The high-yield seeds of the Green Revolution were not only developed but often marketed by state-financed agricultural institutions. In many poor African countries such institutions barely exist, whereas in wealthier ones spending on them has fallen over the years. Worst of all, farmers in earlier generations had a big incentive to get their hands on high-yielding seeds. Now, the vast majority have no experience of wheat rust. They may therefore see no reason for sowing rust-resistant seeds when they first appear—until the disease destroys their harvest. By then it will be too late.”

Health:  Diarrhoea and malaria, in particular, not only kill, but do life-long damage to cognitive skills. The result?

“The control of such diseases is crucial to a country’s development in a way that had not been appreciated before. Places that harbour a lot of parasites and pathogens not only suffer the debilitating effects of disease on their workforces, but also have their human capital eroded, child by child, from birth.”

Crunch the numbers, and there is a clear correlation between disease burden and average IQ (see graph). New research turns a IQ v diseasecontroversial, quasi-racist story (‘countries are poor because their people are less intelligent’) on its head:

“As countries conquer disease, the intelligence of their citizens rises. It is called the Flynn effect after James Flynn, who discovered it. Its cause, however, has been mysterious—until now. The near-abolition of serious infections in these countries, by vaccination, clean water and proper sewerage, may explain much if not all of the Flynn effect……

It is lack of development, and the many health problems this brings, which explains the difference in levels of intelligence. No doubt, in a vicious circle, those differences help keep poor countries poor. But the new theory offers a way to break the circle.”

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Comments

7 Responses to “Brazil's boom; Africa's pentecostals; food fears and more reasons to invest in health: highlights from this week's Economist”
  1. Kate Norgrove

    Duncan – even more reason to invest in sanitation – diarrhoea is now the number one cause of child deaths in Africa (according to WHO/UNICEF in the Lancet a month ago). Where’s Oxfam’s campaign on poo? Kate (WaterAid)

  2. James S

    Thanks for this Duncan – a nice digest of some important stories. On the last story about health and development outcomes… I wonder if there are lessons there for Oxfam’s programmes on education and health?

    I understand that Oxfam is mostly campaigning on health and education spending by donors. Fine. But how to spend it? And where there are country programmes on health and / or education, is there a coherent programme theory motivating them? My worry is that it is all very small scale, quite expensive stuff based on school governance, which could lead to big changes for a few schools but that these schools will be battling in the face of some serious challenges to improving lot of those kids.

    This page (http://www.povertyactionlab.org/scale-ups/school-based-deworming) puts up the numbers coming out of rigorous studies of school-based deworming programmes, and some quite different pathways to improving development outcomes look quite attractive – low cost, lower risk, wider accessibility, and given the power of a good education, you could argue that this is transformational change.

  3. Ken Smith

    For the second storyon the pentecostals, I wonder if they are more homophobic than the traditional beliefs they are replacing. Even the UK Church of england struggles over gay bishops and the Catholic church and Islam don’t strike me as too tolerant of homosexuality at least officially. Are traditional African beliefs more tolerant ? Maybe someone can enlighten me ?

  4. Steve Madojemu

    Growing Pentecostalism in Africa is partly due to the ‘hope’ offered to a people whose rulers have not helped matters and have often worsened their plight. The people run into these ‘spiritual safety net’ offered by pentecostal preachings where there is hope for real liberation. In other words, corruption which continues to plunder the people into misery & poverty has made millions look for spiritual solution or if you like an ‘escape’.

  5. “The near-abolition of serious infections in these countries, by vaccination, clean water and proper sewerage, may explain much if not all of the Flynn effect……”

    Not sure about that. IIRC one of the textbook examples of the Flynn effect is from Kenya, where IQ is rising much more rapidly than in the developed world, yet presumably many of the diseases in question are still fairly prevalent there.

    FWIW, it seems to me that IQ tests test the sort of problem-solving skills that one needs (and acquires) in a modern urban economy. And so, as countries urbanise and develop, the IQs of their populations rise. Simply because living in cities, along with the challenges of modernity, teaches you to think in ways that correspond to scoring well on such tests.

    Maybe?

  6. Nicholas Colloff

    Whether ‘traditional’ beliefs in Africa are more tolerant of homosexuality is a question of fierce debate that has generated more heat than light but the most likely answer is ‘probably with significant variance between cultures within Africa’.

    In describing the advance of Pentecostals, we must distinguish them from ‘born again Christians’ – all Pentecostals have been ‘twice born’ but not all twice born (by a significant margin) are pentecostals.

    The political dynamics are fascinating – not least the importation of agendas from North America.

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