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China can take criticism today

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November 15, 2003 13:14 IST

It will only get murkier from now on.

The UNESCO report on gender inequality in the world, with India as the star culprit, is just the opening salvo in what is likely to be a pitched battle, not for truth and equality, but for the pocketbooks of those who are not intellectually dishonest, but are rich and white. I get ahead of myself.

First the facts.

The UN body in charge of education, UNESCO, reported  that not only was there little gender equality in education in the poor world, but also that progress had been slow and hence that the much hyped millennium development goals (MDG) for equal education for boys and girls was unlikely to be reached by 2015.

Sorry, this time not me but the UN bodies were ahead of everybody else.

Back to the beginning.

In September 2000, the aid agencies of the world, handling close to $60 billion in annual aid, met to decide how to help the poor achieve progress for themselves (the quasi-governmental organisation burden).

Removal of poverty, health, education, and gender equality was correctly on top of the goal charts.

While everybody else goes around working for a meagre living, the poverty numbers are what grab the most attention of the politicians and the intellectual elites.

It suited nobody's purpose to dream about removal of absolute poverty -- hence the 'ambitious' poverty target of only 15 per cent of the developing world consuming below 1 PPP dollar a day in 2015.

The gender equality goal was more direct and less subject to errors of interpretation -- simply, that boys and girls should be treated equally, especially in education.

(Correctly so, for if they have equal education, they cannot lead separate lives).

So what's the problem? It begins with the simple observation that China and India, with 2.3 billion people, matter a lot, indeed determine, whether the MDG goals will be reached.

So getting the numbers right for these two countries is all that is required to evaluate levels, progress, and achievement.

(This is not to reduce the importance of the attention the world needs to give to the poor in Africa; indeed, by getting China and India right, Africa should get more attention -- U2 Bono, are you listening?)

'Unfortunately', for various reasons, both China and India have done rather remarkably well in the last 20 years, registering an average per capita growth rate of above 5 per cent per annum.

The remaining one-third of Asia has also done well with the consequence that the continent has reduced poverty to less than 10 per cent.

With the highly predictable and observable consequence that the MDG target of 15 per cent poor in the world by 2015 was reached at the time the claret filled rooms in Washington were just beginning to brew the strategy in 2000!

The war on gender inequality remains, so aid should be forthcoming. 'Unfortunately', again, tremendous progress has been made in gender equality in India over the last twenty years.

Reliable NSS household survey data on enrolment (what parents state and not the padded enrolment figures provided by politicians and bureaucrats in the ministries of education), suggest that there was close to gender equality in education in India in 1999-2000 (again, before the MDG target setting exercise).

How close -- about 90 per cent, or that for every one year of education  a boy received, a girl received 0.9 years. Note that gender equality has to do with boys and girls being treated equally, and not with whether the poor and rich achieve the same levels of education.

(Just to make sure that the poor might enrol and do not have monetary difficulties, Indian universities provide free education to all the (rich) entrants!)

The simple reality is that in India today, once a girl is allowed to be born, she is treated virtually at par with the boy.

And on education, the debate in India has moved on from quantity to the quality of education i.e. can Ram and Sita learn to read and write, and not just attend school?

If this is all common knowledge, then how does an international expert infested body like UNESCO claim that India is the culprit for slow progress, and oh my, the non-achievement of the equality target of 2015?

Surely, the aid agencies need to ask for more money to redress this injustice.

In the name of equality, we need to march on. But a funny thing happened on the way to correctness -- UNESCO had used data for India for 1991 in 2003, to make forecasts for 2015. Kafka, are you listening?

This brings me to my final problem, my other angst against the sometimes intellectually dishonest international agencies.

(These institutions are filled with heterogeneous staff who are often at loggerheads with the hijacked 'in the name of the poor and political correctness' leadership).

Why aren't the agencies equally contemptuous, circumspect, and disdainful of Chinese data and Chinese accomplishments?

When was the last time an EIO  (expert at an international organisation) questioned anything that the Chinese did? Worse, is it not the case that the EIOs dare not question Chinese data or policy?

This unjustified favouritism manifests itself in many ways.

First, should not gender equality mean less killing of the unborn girl child, a murder considerably more prevalent in China than India? Instead, the EIOs commend China for its effective population control.

Second, Chinese poverty data are not made public.

No one (besides the international organisations that produce reports and publicise the good in China, especially in contrast to the bad and ugly elsewhere) has access to household survey data of China.

The published household survey results contain anomalies left unexplored e.g. that urban China today is considerably more equal than rural China, or that urban Chinese, despite having three times the incomes of the rural folks, still save the same 'low' fraction of their incomes -- about 25 per cent. The published national savings rate in China -- 45 per cent!

Third, EIOs feel that they can freely criticise India, and recommend policies, but dare not do so with China.

The distinguished former chief economist of the IMF, Ken Rogoff, an expert on exchange rates, was in India recently and testified towards the need for India to have more flexible exchange rates.

Good. But what about China, he was asked? Oh, you know how difficult it is to evaluate exchange rates, it is unclear whether the yuan is undervalued, let alone considerably undervalued, never mind their 25 percent export growth.

And China has large numbers of people to provide jobs to. (And India does not?) What  about their mercantilist pegged exchange rate policies? Well, flexibility has benefits but the nature of the exchange rate regime is a sovereign issue!

Perhaps the anomaly occurs because India is a confident democracy.

Perhaps it occurs because Indians revel in criticising others and themselves.

Perhaps it occurs because India has, in the best 'left' intellectual tradition, elites who believe that unless they whip themselves they will need the help of a single malt whiskey to drown their guilt.

Whatever the reasons and the justifications, intellectually, the end does not justify the means. And China is a mature economy now. They can take gentle criticism today -- and who knows, they might even start criticising themselves by 2015.

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Surjit S Bhalla