People are attracted by bad news. The media reflects and prefers this preference as it feeds us with misery and panic. Long, slow, positive trends do not reach the front pages or conversations at the coffee machine. So we develop strange misconceptions, and the foremost among these is the idea that most things go wrong.
When I went out The true state of the world in 1998, I pointed out that the world is constantly improving in many ways. At that time, this was considered heresy, as it punctured several common and highly regarded misconceptions, such as the belief that natural resources were about to be used up, that an ever-growing population was eating less and that air and water were becoming more and more polluted. .
In each case, thorough examination of the data showed that the gloomy scenarios prevailing at that time were in fact exaggerated. While fish stocks are shrinking due to lack of regulation, we can actually eat more fish than ever before, thanks to the aquaculture industry. Concerns about the disappearance of forests disregard the fact that as land becomes richer, the forested areas increase.
Since I wrote the book, the world has only gotten better. For example, we have seen a reduction in child mortality and malnutrition worldwide, and there have been massive advances in the work of eradicating polio, measles, malaria and illiteracy.
By focusing on one of the deadliest environmental problems – air pollution – we can see some of the causes of the improvement. As the world has developed an awareness of the problem, the number of air pollution deaths has dropped dramatically, and this trend is likely to continue. Looking at a polluted city in a country like China may give the impression that it is not, but the indoor air in the homes of the poorest people is about ten times more polluted than the worst outdoor air in Beijing. The most serious environmental problem for humans is indoor air pollution from cooking and heating with dirty energy sources such as firewood and animal decay – which is a result of poverty.
Slow, positive trends do not reach the front pages.
In 1900, more than 90 percent of all deaths were due to indoor air pollution. Economic development has resulted in more outdoor pollution, but also much less indoor pollution. Reduced poverty has gone hand in hand with a four times greater reduction in global mortality due to air pollution. Nevertheless, there are still more people who die from indoor air pollution than from outdoor pollution. Even in China, poverty reduction has led to less risk of dying from air pollution altogether, although outdoor air has become far more polluted. And as countries get richer, they can afford to regulate and cut even in outdoor air pollution.
200 years ago, almost every single person on the planet lived in poverty, while a tiny little elite lived in luxury. Today, only 9,1 percent of the population, or nearly 700 million people, live on less than $ 1,9 a day (or that was one dollar in 1985). And just in the last 20 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost halved. This is what few of us know. The Gapminder Foundation conducted a survey in the UK and found that only 10 per cent of those surveyed believed there has been less poverty in the world. In South Africa and Sweden, more people believe that extreme poverty has doubled than – correctly – reduced.
How can we ensure that rapid progress continues? It has not lacked in well-meaning political measures, so we have decades of data showing what works and what doesn't. The last category shows that well-considered ideas from the world's most eminent thinkers may fall short. The ambitious Millennium Village concept was intended to make progress on several fronts simultaneously. It should produce "good results in three or fewer years," according to founder Jeffrey D. Sachs. But a study by the UK's Department of International Development shows that the villages had "moderate positive effects" and "little general effect on poverty".
The power of the market
Focusing on what works is more constructive. A global analysis of development goals for the Copenhagen Consensus by a panel of Nobel Prize-winning economists showed how more money can be made the most. They concluded that better access to birth control and family planning would reduce maternal and child mortality, and also – through a demographic gain – increase economic growth.
Research assessing Haiti's best development policy found that focusing on better nutrition through the use of vitaminized flour would improve the health of children and provide lifelong benefits.
The success of reducing poverty is an extraordinary achievement.
Other research from the Copenhagen Consensus suggests that upscaling of government platforms for e-commerce would have a positive effect. This may seem peripheral to poverty reduction, but it is not. On average, developing countries spend half their budgets on procurement; Making open competition possible can reduce losses due to corruption.
These are not mere speculations. A case study in Bangladesh, which spends more than $ 9 billion a year on procurement, showed that a sample project with e-procurement in one government ministry lowered prices by 12 percent, freeing funds for other budget priorities. Research shows that expanding e-purchases to include the entire government apparatus would save $ 670 million a year – enough to increase annual health spending by about 50 percent. The Bangladesh government is now accelerating this expansion.
The most powerful weapon in the fight against poverty is what has got us where we are today: broadly based economic growth. Over the past 30 years, rapid Chinese growth alone has lifted as many as 680 million people across the poverty line.
Focusing on what works is more constructive.
A global trade agreement – such as the successful completion of the Doha Round – would lift another 160 million people out of poverty. The skepticism of free trade affects the world's poorest. While other US political matters and President Donald Trump's Twitter messages get far more media coverage, the current administration's rejection of free trade could be the biggest tragedy. Humanity's success in reducing poverty is an extraordinary achievement that we are far too reluctant to acknowledge. We must make sure not to forget what has brought us so far – and what is the basis for the hope of an even better future.
Translated into Norwegian by Lasse Takle.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.