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Around the world, poverty is collapsing. Why is that so hard to believe?

6 January 2016

4:19 PM

6 January 2016

4:19 PM

In 2012 and 2013, The Spectator opened its Christmas special issue with a leading article counting the ways in which the world had never been a better place, and was set to get better still. We didn’t do so this year, as the list would have been a bit too similar to previous versions – but others did pick up the theme, including Dan Hannan on ConHome. This was taken up by Matthew d’Ancona in the Guardian making an excellent follow-up point: if things are so good, why don’t people feel it?

He traces this argument to Matt Ridley’s 2010 book, the Rational Optimist, and to Stephen Pinker’s 2011 book about declining violence. I agree with him that Ridley’s book is a landmark in the debate: if you haven’t read it, go buy it now. But other, earlier studies are worth noting. In 2006, Indur Goklany published a book called The Improving State of the World – Matthew d’Ancona spotted its significance and commissioned Allister Heath to bring it to the attention of Spectator readers in this article. But for me, the real eye-opener was Johan Norberg’s 2001 book, In Defence of Global Capitalism. That was written as a reaction to the anti-capitalist movement made fashionable by the likes of Naomi Klein. Norberg’s book changed the way I thought about the world. I would not have believed half of its assertions had they not been backed up by facts and figures: it converted me from a cynic into an optimist; from being agnostic about global capitalism into being convinced that it’s the greatest force for good on the planet.

But these books are, themselves, part of an important trend: things have been going badly right since the turn of the century and the digital era means that you can quickly and easily get hold of the data to prove it. Once, the idea that the world is ever-improving was a minority view – expounded by Julian Simon, the grand old man of development optimism, with his book The Ultimate Resource (1981), perhaps the founding text of what is now a genre. Then, you needed his book to argue that the world is getting better all the time. Now, the trend is so strong that it’s impossible to miss. Go try find any figures to suggest the world is screwed and you’ll find, as Bjorn Lomborg famously did, that it’s not.

The World Health Organisation, the United Nations, the OECD, the World Bank – all of them now keep annually updated records of human progress, and the story told by these metrics is the greatest story of our age. Some of the graphs are being compiled by Dr Max Roser, a German academic, in his project Our World In Data (which features the below chart). A few weeks ago, I wrote about just one of the trends for the Telegraph – the progress against malaria, once (but no longer) mankind’s biggest killer. Each year you check the statistics, they’re even more jaw-dropping. For example: remember polio? The disease that crippled Roosevelt and afflicted 350,000 children as recently as the 1980s? Last year, fewer than 100 cases were diagnosed. It’s on the verge of going the same way as smallpox: to extinction.


So why, as Matthew d’Ancona asks, is the good news story so hard to swallow? I have my own answer: People take the world as they see it, and we humans are problem-solvers. We scan the horizon for potential danger. We focus on what’s going wrong, rather than congratulate ourselves for what has gone right. The average Brit doesn’t wake up thanking God that he’s not living in a cave, or dying of consumption, or that he’s wealthier and healthier than his parents were at his age. He focuses on the next problem, and tries to solve it.

This grumpiness, this glorious discontent, is the engine of human progress. And it’s crucial: even 1pc unemployment feels like 100pc unemployment to those looking for work. Those who have never feared polio can hardly be expected to celebrate its near-extinction; those who suffer from cancer have every right to ask why, after so many years of medical science, we still rely on such a blunt tool as chemotherapy. We tend not to zoom out, or look at the bigger picture. Which, by the way, looks something like this:

As we become more prosperous, as we deal with poverty, we become less tolerant of it. No one is seriously arguing that there is more hunger today than in the 1950s. But we have food banks now, and didn’t then, because we’re less tolerant of the (far lower) level of hunger in our society.

As I argued in my Daily Telegraph column, the need for food banks is deplorable but their emergence is a welcome sign of progress. And on a global basis, wealth of the rich world is being shared by the poor as never before, as shown by overseas aid figures (below) both private and public. It’s a paradox: a generation ago, there was far more global poverty yet far less anger about it. As the West grows richer, it starts to care – quite rightly – about problems that we can now solve. Chiefly through the promotion of free trade. As Norberg argues, the worst inequality in the world is the unequal distribution of capitalism.

Pictures of starving Africans will always make a bigger impact than reading that six million more are alive today because of the retreat of malaria. Or reading that the number of sub-Saharan African children sleeping under malaria nets has risen from 2 per cent to 55 per cent since the turn of the century. Save the Children’s winter appeal pictures a sad-looking boy from Congo and warns that ‘thousands of children like Kabeya will wake up sick with hunger’ this Christmas. Quite true – but the stunning truth about Congo is that it has almost halved the number in extreme poverty in just ten years. In fact, worldwide, poverty rates halved since 1990. Back then, just 52 per cent of children in sub-Saharan Africa went to primary school. Now, it hit 82 per cent – and rising.

Are you getting bored of the statistics yet? They do tend to make the eyes glaze over: a picture of a dying girl with the distraught mother by the bedside (as per the Christian Aid malaria advert) will always hit home harder. Outfits like Christian Aid have no incentive to tell the good news story about Africa: it doesn’t help raise donations, nor does it sell newspapers.  Bad news always has more potency than good. Judging the world by reading newspaper headlines is like judging a city by spending a night in its A&E ward: you only see what’s going wrong.

The progress made against global poverty, which has accelerated to a mind-blowing degree since I first read about it from Norberg 15 years ago, is the biggest story of our age. I’m delighted to report that Norberg is writing a new book devoted to this: ‘Progress: Ten Problems Mankind is Solving’ – things like poverty, death, hunger, child labour, despotism, bigotry and environmental destruction. It’s needed: this is still the greatest story, and it’s still not being told enough.

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