We live in exciting times. I am not talking about the advances of medicine, science and engineering. Nor the growth of the internet, the mobile phone or the fact that Africa is the world’s fastest growing market for the latter… I could go on.
I’m talking about the dramatic drops in child mortality, birth rates and death rates in the poorest countries. It’s a trend that appears to be accelerating, and it is expected that figures to be published in a few years will show an even more dramatic fall. Give thanks for all the energy and sweat that has been poured into the problem by local governments, by the Bush administration’s programme to fight AIDS and malaria, organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the global fund for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and countless small NGOs.
Today we have a preview of their success. This week the Indian census office published its latest results on these indicators. Based on an India-wide sample of 7 million, there has been a 14 per cent decline in the annual birth rate. In eight major states it was much more. In the breadbasket of Punjab it was almost a quarter. In West Bengal and Kerala, where communist governments have been in office for decades, it was nearly 20 per cent. And the drop in death rates was also astonishing—in the desert state of Rajasthan it was almost a quarter. And Bihar, the poorest of the large states, experienced a drop of 22 per cent.
Contraception is one explanation. So is better sanitation, life-saving drugs and, in West Bengal, an increase in income. There, rural incomes are now high enough to cut down migration into Kolkata. In Kerala high education levels, especially of young girls, are another factor of success—a policy that produces dramatic results wherever it is tried. Kerala now has the best infant mortality rate in India. The southern state of Tamil Nadu has slashed its infant mortality by an incredible 42 per cent; West Bengal by 34 per cent and Maharashtra (in which the city of Mumbai dwarfs everything else in the state) by 33 per cent.
In a recent report Unicef noted that its millennium goals, which…