National Times

By Edward Blakely

Poverty has been in the news recently. In the US 14 per cent, or one in eight Americans, fell below the nations' poverty line. These are the worst American statistics since the Great Depression. Not only are more Americans poor but almost 50 million have no health insurance in the richest country in the world.

On the other side of the globe, more people in Asia and Africa rose from crippling poverty to enter the labour forces of growing economies in India, China and South Africa. While the UN Millennium Goals of lifting the world's population out of extreme poverty, where many subsist on less than $US1 a day, will not be met by 2015, a lot of progress is being made. The reasons for this are that China, India, Russia, Brazil, South Africa and other nations, heretofore trapped in desperate poverty, are becoming economic powerhouses while the US and Western Europe are faltering.

These rising economies are starting to trade with one another, since they see their counterpart developing nations as better markets than Europe or the US. Interestingly enough, these nations are growing because they are mimicking the way the US and Europe got big and strong. They are making things. They are manufacturing and educating their population to be more productive and they are consuming locally, creating internal markets for their goods as well as exporting good to the US, Europe and Australia.

Americans would like to blame the US government for not protecting jobs and letting US jobs go overseas. The truth of the matter is that these countries are competing well for US jobs because the nations such as India, China and Korea have made massive investments in basic infrastructure and education.

China, for example, is building a high-speed rail system that will add 1-1.5 per cent to its GDP annually by delivering goods to Russia and Europe by 2015 by rail. It is also expanding its infrastructure building to Africa where they are building hundreds of factories, schools and roads to facilitate new commerce. Korea has totally revamped its economy into a lower-energy consuming, higher production economy in less than a decade.

While the US let its infrastructure erode to the point that bridges are collapsing and levees like those in New Orleans failed, the developing nations have been building and not complaining.

Not only are these nations growing, they are embracing sustainable low-carbon techniques and technologies.Why? Because they have to. Brazil uses bio-fuels because they have sugar cane to use. China is reducing its coal-based power because it does not want to be energy dependent like the US. India is coming up with a plethora of new technologies such as a new small smart car that can be powered by several renewable fuels because they have few other alternatives.

What this means is that the world can grow out of poverty using sustainable technologies. But it also means Americans and Australians will have to make massive investments in infrastructure just to keep up with the developing world. It means America, Europe and Australia need to re-build national infrastructure if we are not going to trade places with Asia, Africa, Russia and Latin America and be their poor neighbours.

Here in Australia, our current debates over the national broadband network and lack of any real discussions of fast rail or smarter transport systems means we face the bleak prospect of being a dark deep coal mine with no capacity to compete with a better educated, more environmentally sound and well connected global economy.

The lessons here are clear — compete or become poor; don't just complain about the people who are building a better world.

Professor Edward J Blakely is author with William Goldsmith of Separate Societies: Poverty and Inequality in US Cities (Temple University Press, 2010). He is an Australian-American professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and an internationally recognised expert on urban planning and development.