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Well, is the world improving or not?

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 10 May 2018

This is my second essay on the argument and contents of Hans Rosling's book Factfulness… You can read the first essay here. There have been some misguided comments on the book, for which I may be partly responsible. So let me clear a couple of matters up. First, when you make judgments of any kind you are engaging in comparison. There are three main forms of comparison: comparing something with the same thing elsewhere at the same time (eg domestic violence rates in Australia and in Argentina), or that something with the same thing in the same place but over time (eg domestic violence rates in Australia 1900 to 1910 and 2001 to 2010), or, finally, that something with an ideal (eg domestic violence rates in Australia in 2017 to the ideal of no domestic violence at all - if that is your ideal). But, inescapably, you are doing one or the other. Someone asserts, 'domestic violence rates are far too high!' Compared with when, with where, with what? Hans Rosling is estimating human progress by comparing rates or amounts of this or that with the same rates or amounts earlier - over time. He does do some across-space comparisons, but that is not the main point of his book.

Second, he didn't address everything that could have been mentioned, and Australia gets only sparse attention in the book. But if you read it closely you will see that we are seen as part of 'Western' societies which plainly have little idea of what is happening in the rest of the world. Australians did not perform well in answering his three-choice questions on what has happened. But then we were not obviously worse than others. I spent some time on this in the first essay.

So, I turn to his summary of what has happened in the last few decades, which he arranged in two parts. For space reasons I haven't included all the comparisons.


Bad things decreasing

  • Legal slavery (forced labour) was endemic in 1800, is now practised in only 3 countries out of 194.
  • Children dying before their fifth birthday: 44 per cent in 1800, 4 per cent in 2016.
  • Countries allowing leaded petrol: 193 in 1986; 3 in 2017.
  • Countries with death penalty: 193 in 2016, 89 in 2016.
  • Oil spills from tankers: 636,000 tonnes in 1979, 6,000 in 2016 (and not much since 1996).
  • HIV infections per million people: 549 in 1996, 241 in 2016.
  • Deaths in battle per 100,000 people: 201 in 1942, virtually constant at 1 since the mid 1950s.
  • Plane crash deaths per 10 billion passenger miles: 2100 in 1929-33, 1 in 2012-16.
  • Deaths from disaster (ten-year averages, at 1000 deaths per year): 971 in the 1930s, 72 in 2010-2016.
  • Hunger (proportion of people under-nourished): 28 per cent in 1970, 11 per cent in 2015.


Good things increasing

  • Literacy (proportion of adults 15+ who can read and write): 1800 - 10 per cent, 2016 - 86 per cent.
  • Democracy (proportion of people living in democratic systems): 1816: 1 per cent, 2015 - 56 per cent.
  • Harvesting volume (cereal yield at 1000kg per hectare): 1961 - 1.4, 2014 - 4.
  • Girls in school (proportion of girls in primary school): 1965 - 70 per cent, 2015 - 90 per cent.
  • Electricity coverage (proportion of people with some access to electricity): 1991 - ­­­­72 per cent, 2014 - 85 per cent.
  • Immunisation (proportion of one-year-olds who have had at least one vaccination): 1980 - 22 per cent, 2016 - 88 per cent.
  • Mobile phones (proportion of people with a mobile phone): 1980 - virtually no one, 2017 - 65 per cent.
  • Water access (proportion of people with access to a protected water source): 1980 - 58 per cent, 2015 - 88 per cent.
  • Internet access : 1980 - nil, 2017 - 48 per cent.
  • National parks (proportion of world's land surface in designated national parks or like reserves): 1900: 0.03 per cent, 2016: 14.7 per cent.



Why should all this be of interest to Australians? Because, to take a trite example first, the news that the world's human peoples seem to be steadily improving their lot in life ought to reduce our fears of angry mobs invading our shores because we have it and they don't. More importantly, all this is happening without much of a contribution from us, or from national leaders everywhere. It is happening, Rosling says, because the knowledge is there, the technology is there, the examples are there, and people everywhere are doing their best to use the knowledge and technology, and learn from the examples. He gives most of the credit to nurses, public servants, teachers and leaders from below, the people who stand up in villages and suggest how they might do something better. One such leader saved his life, and the book is dedicated to her.

He suggests that rather than thinking about 'us' and 'them' (which he sees as an endemic problem in the West), we imagine the human world as consisting of four groups: Level 1: those who have no more than one dollar a day to live on, Level 2: those with four times that amount ($4), Level 3: those with $16 a day, and those on Level 4 who have $64 a day or more. Of our seven billion people, where do you think the majority are? If you think they're in Level 1 you are quite wrong, though that is a common answer in the West. There are one billion people in Level 1, three billion in Level 2, two billion in Level 3 and one billion in Level 4. While those on Level 1 would like to be at Level 4, their real interest today is decent water, electricity or gas or anything better to cook with than animal dung, antibiotics for their ill child and schooling. They can see that these things are possible.

Those on Level 2 are aspiring to a bicycle, plastic buckets to store water, and perhaps access to whatever electricity is about in their area. They have hopes for their children that are based on education, which is there to some degree. At Level 3 the aspiration is for a motor bike, the children are in high school and there are only two of them. There is running water, refrigeration, the Internet, universities, suburban transport that works, and so on. Level 4 readers in Australia know all about Level 4. They live in it. In all the Levels there are rich people, middle-income people and poor people. The Indian middle-class was counted at 80 million a few years ago. I would imagine that the Chinese middle class is even larger, to gauge from the numbers of Chinese tourists who visit our country.

But it was not always Level 4 in Australia, or Sweden or the UK or the USA. When I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s there were a lot of people who were living at Level 2, and aspired to Level 3. My father went to school in bare feet in 1910, and had only cast-down clothes from his elder brother until he was fifteen. There are other good examples of what it was like in the Comments that followed the On Line Opinion republication of my first essay, which you can read here. Rosling himself gives personal accounts drawn from his family of what it was like in Sweden in the 1950s, and they are not good reading.

Which is why his account of human progress is so inspiring. My own reading over the last twenty years has brought me to the same position, but Rosling's data are far richer, and global in their reach. A lot follows, or at least seems to me to follow, from his book, and I'll be reflecting on its messages for some time. One is that we need to support those who are doing things at the lowest levels of human habitation, not giving governments lots of money in the hope that they will do something useful with it rather than setting up private Swiss bank accounts. Another is that NGOs that do that work (and we need to be sure we know which ones they are) are probably as important as government aid.

There's so much more. Once again, I thoroughly recommend this book. Human progress is occurring quickly. Yes, not everywhere, and not at the same rate. But as Rosling's data show, it is happening powerfully. Long may it do so.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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