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

July 6, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

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.”