As the 20th century draws to a close, humans can look proudly on a number of magnificent accomplishments. In 1900 man was unable to fly, but just three years later the Wright brothers made the first successful airplane flight. It lasted 12 seconds. In the last week of this century, space-walking astronauts performed a procedure on the Hubble Space telescope that will allow us to explore other galaxies in the 21st century. One hundred years from now it is possible we will communicate with other life forms that today are the subjects of science fiction.
Advances in modern medicine have been credited with increasing the average human life span from 46 to 66 years over the past 50 years. The average life span for an American today is 78 years. Scientists predict that humans may be able to live as long as 200 years by the end of the 21st century.
Despite all the technological and scientific breakthroughs that have allowed many to lead quality, productive lives, there are many who will enter the 21st century still living a 19th-century existence.
According to the 1998 United Nations Human Development Report, 4 billion of the world's 6 billion people live in the developing world. Sixty percent of those people have no access to basic sanitation, 33 percent are without safe drinking water, 25 percent lack adequate housing, and 20 percent are malnourished, not educated beyond the 5th grade, and without modern health services.
The UN report states that "global inequities have reached grotesque proportions." The word "grotesque" may be too mild. "Inhuman" may be more appropriate to describe the widening gulf between the well-off and the poor, which is growing increasingly.
While the United States is enjoying its greatest economic expansion in history, no fewer than 80 countries have a lower per-capita income in 1998 than they did in 1989. From 1994 to 1998, the assets of the world's 200 richest people more than doubled from $440 billion to $1,042 trillion. These 200 individuals have combined incomes of more than the 2.36 billion people who make up the bottom 40 percent of the world's population.
The gap between the average incomes of the richest 20 percent and the poorest 20 percent in the world increased from 30 to 1 in 1960 to 60 to one in 1990. In 1999, the gap widened even further to 74 to 1. At this rate, the disparity could be 100 to 1 before 2015.
We are now in a world where leaders avow the principles of justice, human rights, and freedom. These principles inherently encompass the notion that people everywhere are entitled to basic economic rights. While globalization may be creating a world where temporal, physical, and political barriers are collapsing, there are still many who cannot afford a passport into the global community. For the billions of the world's poor, the borders are as restrictive as ever.
When people's lives are insecure, individuals are unable to flourish and social cohesion breaks down. The spread of global threats such as organized crime, trafficking in women and children for sexual exploitation, and drugs are outpacing endeavors to tackle them.
Thus, as we enter the 21st century, a major challenge for world leaders and policymakers is to ensure that human security concerns are placed at the center of the globalization debate, so that global interdependence works for people, not just for profits.
Perhaps one way to accomplish this is for Americans to reexamine their foreign assistance spending. Most Americans have the false impression that 20 percent of the US budget is spent on foreign aid. In fact, foreign assistance accounts for only one-half of 1 percent, and funding is at its lowest level (in real dollar terms) in more than 50 years.
Hopefully, 100 years from now, our descendants will be able to look proudly on the 21st century, saying their ancestors successfully narrowed the gap between rich and poor, and that the world is a better, prosperous, more peaceful place for all.
*John J. Brandon is assistant director of The Asia Foundation, in Washington. The views expressed here are his own.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society