Hold the front page: the world is getting better

How about a late summer quiz to get the mind working again after all those hours by the pool? Try answering these three multiple-choice questions about the state of the world. Bear in mind that if you score less than 33% you will have done worse than a chimp since, statistically, they are likely to get at least one question right.

How did deaths per year from natural disasters change over the past century? Did they:
a. More than double.
b. Remain about the same.
c. Decrease to less than half.

Globally how many years did women over the age of 30 spend at school? Men of the same age spent an average of eight years at school.
a. 7 years
b. 5 years
c. 3 years

Over the past 20 years the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has…?
a. Almost doubled.
b. Remained about the same
c. Almost halved

The answers are C, A and C. If you got all the answers wrong and did worse than the chimps, don’t feel too disheartened. The Swedish statistician and global health professor Hans Rosling, sadly now passed away, posed hundreds of questions like this to thousands of people across the world. Respondents included medical students, teachers, university lecturers, eminent scientists, investment bankers, executives in multinational companies, journalists, activists, and even senior political decision makers and Nobel laureates.

Rosling found a “stunning majority” got most of the answers wrong, nearly all picking the worst possible outcomes. The chimps did better than the Nobel laureates and leading decision makers! It seems nearly everybody thinks the world is going to hell in a handcart when, in fact, life has improved significantly for most people around the world in recent decades.

So, why are so many people so wrong about the state of the world? Personal experience tells me the media bears a lot of responsibility. In the 1990s, I reported on a famine in Cambodia. During a follow-up phone call with the aid worker who was the source of the story, she became exasperated with my line of questioning, asking, “Don’t you want to know about the good things that are happening here?”

The only honest answer was no. My editor wouldn’t have been even slightly interested in positive news. That’s the way the media works. Nobody cares if a million planes land safely. When one crashes, everybody takes notice. But does the constant litany of disaster, violence and tragedy that is pumped out by the news media every day leave us all with an unduly bleak view of the world?

Politicians and pressure groups are also culprits. Every opposition politician when running for office tends to focus on what is wrong with their country and how only he or she has the answers. That was certainly Donald Trump’s playbook. Pressure groups too love to drum up support by exaggerating problems. They thrive on what Margaret Thatcher called the “oxygen of publicity”.

Maybe those riveting box sets produced by the likes of Prime Video and Netflix also share some blame. Fantastically made and written, they tend to focus on the dark side of human nature, and they seem to be getting increasingly darker.

So, what is the world really like? Here are some facts and they may surprise you.

The world is getting more peaceful
The number of people dying in armed conflicts around the world has fallen steadily since the Second World War. In some years in the early post-war era, around half-a-million people died through direct violence in wars; in contrast, in 2017 the number of deaths in conflicts in 2017 was 69,000. That is still an awful lot of lives unnecessarily lost. But to put that figure into comparison, around 1.25 million people are killed in car accidents each year.

Democracy is on the advance everywhere
Back in 1970, there were just 38 democracies in the world and 117 autocracies, including Portugal, where democracy arrived in 1974, following the Carnation Revolution. Fifty years later and democracies are in the majority, accounting for 99 of the world’s states compared to 88 autocracies. Democracy has spread across Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa over the past five decades and there is little sign that the trend is going to go into reverse. That is important for many reasons, not least for global peace since true democracies tend not to go to war with each other.

Global poverty is declining rapidly
Capitalism requires reform but free market economics, embraced by countries such as China, India and Vietnam, has lifted billions out of poverty since the 1970s. Indeed, the fall in the numbers of those living in extreme poverty has been quite remarkable. Around 10% of the world’s population lived on less than $1.90 a day in 2015, down from nearly 36% in 1990 and 42% in the early 1980s, according to the World Bank.

As Rosling pointed out, this is revolutionary. It means that: “The vast majority of the world’s population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale.

Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees. Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview. “
Of course, we shouldn’t be complacent. The world still faces many challenges, not least climate change, but things are getting better. Humans are capable of progress and of improving the world. That fact should be celebrated if only because it will give us the confidence to go on and make it still better.

By Anthony Beachey
|| [email protected]

Anthony Beachey is a former BBC World Service journalist now working on a freelance basis in Portugal, where he specialises in economics and finance.