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[Opinion] The Right to Eat

Posted May. 27, 2005 03:42,   


There goes a saying that hunger is bearable, while envy is not. This is kind of a joke, but no one in severe hunger would find it funny. The Korea National Statistics Office (KNSO)`s recent estimate indicates that in Korea, the world`s tenth-largest economy, one out of every 10, or five million people, are living below the poverty line. The figure is at least near the average ratio of the poor, 10.2 percent, for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member states.

In the United States, people living below the poverty line account for 17.1 percent of the total population. This is a much higher proportion than Sweden`s 5.3 percent, as well as the United Kingdom`s 11.4 percent and Japan`s 15.3 percent.

Some argue that we should escape from globalization and the market economy, which they say widen the gap between the rich and the poor and make our lives even tougher by the day. When we look at the statistics, however, we can see that their argument is wrong. Human beings are making a much better living than in the past. From the late 18th Century through the year 2000, national income per capita increased 36-fold in the United States. Western European, Asian and African countries saw their national income per capita grow by 13, eight, and four times, respectively. Also, the number of the poor declined dramatically. According to the World Bank, the proportion of people living on less than one dollar per day (calculated on a purchasing-power basis) in the world population dropped from 33 percent (1.5 billion people) in 1981 to 18 percent (1.1 billion people) in 2001.

Both in the past and the present, places that are failing to escape from poverty are not those where globalization and the market economy are prospering, but African countries, which are experiencing quite the opposite.

"Kuznets Curve" refers to a pattern where inequality worsens at an early economic stage, while wealth spreads with economic growth. Korea displayed a similar pattern until the end of the last century. The question is whether an economic growth continues. Back in 1965, Korea and the Philippines had similar levels of gross domestic production (GDP). But by achieving economic growth of over six percent annually, Korea successfully joined the OECD. Meanwhile, the Philippines, whose growth rate stayed stuck at around two percent, ended up lagging way behind.

The reasons why the problems with five million people below the poverty level are so serious is a growing anomaly where, unlike in the past, economic wealth is not being sufficiently diffused down to the worse off. Among all sufferings, hunger is the most terrible distress. Furthermore, when we think of North Korean residents, whose "right to eat" is not yet guaranteed, we realize that further economic growth is still needed.

Kim Sun-duk, Editorial writer, yuri@donga.com