Thursday, October 18, 2007

“Fundamentally Unfair” World (WDR 2006)

Consider two South African children born on the same day in 2000. Nthabiseng is black, born to a poor family in a rural area in the Eastern Cape province, about 700 kilometers from Cape Town. Her mother had no formal schooling. Pieter is white, born to a wealthy family in Cape Town. His mother completed a college education at the nearby prestigious Stellenbosch University. On the day of their birth, Nthabiseng and Pieter could hardly be held responsible for their family circumstances: their race, their parents’ income and education, their urban or rural location, or indeed their sex. Yet statistics suggest that those predetermined background variables will make a major difference for the lives they lead. Nthabiseng has a 7.2 percent chance of dying in the first year of her life, more than twice Pieter’s 3 percent. Pieter can look forward to 68 years of life, Nthabiseng to 50. Pieter can expect to complete 12 years of formal schooling, Nthabiseng less than 1 year.1 Nthabiseng is likely to be considerably poorer than Pieter throughout her life.2 Growing up, she is less likely to have access to clean water and sanitation, or to good schools. So the opportunities these two children face to reach their full human potential are vastly different from the outset, through no fault of their own. Such disparities in opportunity translate into different abilities to contribute to South Africa’s development. Nthabiseng’s health at birth may have been poorer, owing to the poorer nutrition of her mother during her pregnancy. By virtue of their gendersocialization, their geographic location, and their access to schools, Pieter is much more likely to acquire an education that will enable him to put his innate talents to fulluse. Even if at age 25, and despite the odds, Nthabiseng manages to come up with a great business idea (such as an innovation to increase agricultural production), she would find it much harder to persuade a bank to lend her money at a reasonable interest rate. Pieter, having a similarly bright idea (say, on how to design an improved version of promising software), would likely find it easier to obtain credit, with both a college diploma and quite possibly some collateral.With the transition to democracy in South Africa, Nthabiseng is able to vote and thus indirectly shape the policy of her government, something denied to blacks under apartheid. But the legacy of apartheid’s unequal opportunities and political power will remain for some time to come. It is a long road from such a (fundamental) political change to changes in economic and social conditions. As striking as the differences in life chances are between Pieter and Nthabiseng in South Africa, they are dwarfed by the disparities between average South Africans and citizens of more developed countries. Consider the cards dealt to Sven—born on that same day to an average Swedish household. His chances of dying in the first year of life are very small (0.3 percent)and he can expect to live to the age of 80, 12 years longer than Pieter, and 30 years more than Nthabiseng. He is likely to complete 11.4 years of schooling—5 years more than the average South African. These differences in the quantity of schooling are compounded by differences in quality: in the eighth grade, Sven can expect to obtain a score of 500 on an internationally comparable math test, while the average South African student will get a score of only 264—more than two standard deviations below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) median. Nthabiseng most likely will never reach that grade and so will not take the test. 3 These differences in life chances across nationality, race, gender, and social groups will strike many readers as fundamentally unfair. They are also likely to lead to wasted human potential and thus to missed development opportunities.

Source: WDR 2006

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