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The quest for an escape route

Syed Mahbubur Rashid | Published: June 16, 2016 19:22:57 | Updated: October 17, 2017 23:11:00


Angus Deaton is the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Economics Department at Princeton University, USA. Deaton's many books include 'Analysis of Household Surveys' and 'Economics and consumer behavior'. He is the past president of the American Economic Association. The book has been published by Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.
The Great Escape, a famous movie made in the 1960s, was about the prisoners of war in World War II of a camp under the Nazis. There were about 250 prisoners who made escape routes befooling the Nazi guards through following improvised and primitive methods. They escaped later; but all but three prisoners were recaptured and 50 of them were executed. This scribe had the opportunity to watch this great movie at the then Gulistan cinema in Dhaka shortly after its release.
The author of the book has chosen its title as 'The Great Escape' to highlight man's inborn desire to live in freedom even under unbearably difficult circumstances. He states that the 'great escape' of this book is the story of mankind's escaping from deprivation and early death, that of how people have managed to make their lives better and led the way for others to follow.
The book has been dedicated to the memory of Leslie Harold Deaton, the author's father. The author thinks that his father was one of those persons who escaped early death and made life better. Leslie was drafted into the army in 1939 and sent to France as part of the ill-fated British expeditionary force. After a debacle, he was sent to Scotland to be a commando, but was 'fortunate' to be disqualified from the army due to tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium. He was fortunate because the commando raid on Norway was a failure and he would almost certainly have died. Leslie, in spite of his encounter with tuberculosis during youth, lived into his 90th year.  
In the preface the author has firmly stated, "This book in about the endless dance between progress and inequality, about how progress creates inequality and how inequality can sometimes be helpful and showing others the way or providing incentives for catching up and sometimes unhelpful when those who have escaped protect their position by destroying the escape routes behind them. This is a story that has been told many times but I want to tell it in a new way."
This new way of the author increases the unending inquisitiveness of the readers and keeps them in rapt attention. According to the author, the greatest escape in human history is the escape from poverty and death. Deaton further states that the reduction in global poverty has gained momentum since 1980. The total number of dollars a day for poor people in the world fell by three quarters of a billion between 1980 and 2008 in spite of an increase in the total population of poor countries by about two billion people.
Escape from death as has been felt by the author is increase of longevity, since killer diseases of the past like plague, tuberculosis, malaria and such other fatal ones have been virtually eradicated. This has been possible because of the tremendous development of the medical science in both preventive and curative areas. The author has extensively discussed the issue in his book. It is a fact that science cannot stop the outbreak of fatal diseases as has happened in the case of HIV/AIDS. The disease has killed several million people. But the modern medical science has been able to contain the scourge within a reasonable time.
Coming to foreign aid flow, the author has made some illuminating comments. Foreign aid is the flow of resources from rich countries to poor countries which is aimed at improving the lives of the poor. In earlier times, resources flowed in the opposite direction from the poor countries to rich countries --- the spoils of military conquests and colonial exploitation. In the later periods rich-country investors sent funds to the poor countries to seek profits, not to seek better life for the locals. The author has doubted the sincerity of the aid givers. According to the author, in most cases aid is guided less by the needs of the recipients than by the donor countries' domestic and international interest. This is hardly surprising given that donor governments are democratic and are spending the taxpayers' money.
The author is upbeat about the total development of mankind in the recent decades. According to him, for thousands of years those who were lucky enough to escape death in childhood faced years of grinding poverty. Building on the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the germ theory of diseases, living standards have increased by many times, life spans have more than doubled, and people live fuller and better lives than before. The process is going on. Still some significant numbers of people are left behind.
In the book's seventh chapter in Part III under the title "How to Help Those Left Behind", Angus Deaton has made a very comprehensive discussion and expressed his views in a candid manner. He concludes the chapter saying, "When Princeton students come to talk with me, bringing their deep moral commitment to helping make the world a better, richer place, it is these ideas that I like to discuss, steering them away from plans to tithe from their further incomes, and from using their often formidable talents to precaution to increase the amounts of foreign aid. I tell them to work on and within their own governments, persuading them to stop policies that hurt the people and to support international policies that make globalization work poor people, not against them."
These are our best opportunities to promote 'the great escape' for those who have yet to break free. The title of the postscript is 'What Comes Next'. Here the author wants to maintain the same view that in spite of some lapses 'the great escape' will continue. The author wants to hold the light of hope high. But in the recent times the acts of terrorism and rise of militancy are engulfing the globe. Even the countries which boast of upholding social justice and human rights are falling victims to terrorist activities. Could the grim developments halt the march of 'the great escape'? Climate change may unleash an apocalypse on the world. Only time can provide reply to this question.
 

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