Less than two lifetimes ago the population of this jurisdiction was 6.5 million (1841). Ten years later one in seven of these people were dead, due to the famine, and the population had dropped to 5.1 million.
Last week Ireland was listed twelfth out of 175 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI). By any standards this has been a remarkable turnaround in our circumstances.
Incidentally, we are now the third richest country in the world in terms of GDP per person. Only Luxembourg and the US are ahead of us. (I know that our GDP is somewhat overstated due to the fact that some multi-nationals declare their profits here because of our low corporate tax rate).
Nevertheless, we should acknowledge our success – because we spend so much time whinging about our failures.
The good news is that if we can do it so can the world’s poorer countries.
How did we become so wealthy? There are two main reasons. We invested heavily in education and we opened up our economy to the international economy. On top of that we became the best in the world at attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). I recently seen a table in a magazine where Ireland last year attracted nearly as much foreign investment as the UK, an economy 30 times larger than ours.
Believe it or not, our health situation is also very good. We managed to defeat TB, polio and other diseases by a huge public health programme.
One of the things that was a mixed blessing for us was our high levels of emigration. The export of surplus labour is good in the short-term as those left have more resources. It is disastrous in the medium to long-term because the people who left were often the most dynamic.
The population problem facing many third world countries is made up of these contradictions. Some people might think that in crude economic terms the AIDS crisis in Africa should be good for the continent as it cuts down on the population. The opposite is the case.
The AIDS pandemic is destroying the economic potential in Africa. The working population is being decimated, the dependency ratio is rising rapidly and, instead of spending on education, public budgets are being spent on AIDS treatment.
EU aid to Ireland is not the reason that the economy succeeded but it was very important in keeping down our debt while we invested in infrastructure. We need to extend the same support to others.
In this sense our target of reaching 0.7% of GDP in aid is as much an investment as a hand out. Prosperity and stability are close bedfellows. We have an interest in ensuring that third world development is as rapid and rewarding as ours has been.
But we should wear our success with pride. We were once famous for sleeping with our pigs. It’s said that the Irish made slavery uneconomic in America.
Our story is the antidote to racist logic and despair. All peoples have the same potential.