Measuring humanity's undoubted progress

Jonathan Power


“You can bend any fact with statistics”. There is some truth in that. Nevertheless, some statistics are necessary and they are revealing. Many of us when asked about the position of the poor in America will say that over the last two centuries, the poor in America have made little progress.

But just a moment! Take a look at the statistics. Look at the data. True, many are living in slums and ghettos. But today they have indoor plumbing, heating, electricity, smallpox and tuberculosis-free lives, adequate nutrition, much lower child and maternal mortality, doubled life expectancy, increasingly sophisticated medical attention, the availability of contraception, secondary level schooling for their children, buses, trains, cars and bicycles, much less racial prejudice, longer retirement, a rising quality of the goods they buy, better working conditions and the vote. Once these were luxuries that only the rich could experience.

For Europe, Canada and Japan it is the same story. Even though poverty is not so deep rooted these countries. In recent years this is the experience of most of Latin America, although 20% still live in real poverty. In the Middle East too (including Iraq and Syria before their wars). In China, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South East Asia and North Africa there has been good progress. In the rest of Africa, less so. But a number of countries are getting there: South Africa, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda, Gabon, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya.

Deirdre McCloskey, the author of the book Bourgeois Equality, has called this The Great Enrichment.

The very poorest, living on incomes of less than $2 a day, have experienced some of this but not that much, but they are a fast decreasing breed. Over the 20 years from 1993 the number of very poor people fell by over 1 billion. Between 1990 and 2010 the percentage of children who died before their fifth birthday dropped by almost one half. The biggest declines were in India and China during the time of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Hu Jintao.

According to The Economist the average person among the very poorest lives on $1.33 a day. Consider this: If everybody in the world gave just $.0.57, extreme poverty would be abolished. It would cost only $78 billion a year, less than 0.1% of Global GDP. Indeed, there is an argument for giving the abolition of the worst poverty, priority over funding the combating of global warming. It’s a much, much cheaper cause than what is being estimated as necessary for stalling global warming. Present projections estimate that the world should spend 2.5 trillion US dollars each year on the energy issue, overwhelmingly targeted on renewables. It is also a more urgent cause because people are suffering right now whereas global warming’s severe impact will not come about for another ten to twenty years. Of course, we should do both. The resources are there, locked up in arms’ budgets. If the justification of military expenditure is defense. Isn’t the priority of defense, the defense of the very lives of the poorest and the protection of our planet?

Despite popular belief, the world has become a more equal place since the global financial crisis that began eleven years ago. The growth of Brazil, India and China has led to the biggest decrease in inequality since the Industrial Revolution began in Britain.

The world has also become a less violent place. There have never been so few wars as since the end of the Cold War. According to Stephen Piker’s magisterial study of 2011, The Better Angels of Our Nature, the worldwide rate of death from war has fallen from 300 per 100,000 people during World War 2 to single digits in the 1970s and 80s to less than 1 in this century.

Murder and crime rates have fallen precipitously. Poor people are the ones disproportionately hurt by crime. The European murder rate has fallen 35-fold since the Middle Ages. Though between the 1970s and 80s homicide rates climbed back up from their historic lows, reversing the progress made since the late 19th century, they have fallen sharply in the 21st century in 75 countries. Violent crime has dropped particularly sharply in the developed world. 

Surrounded still by poverty, environmental degradation, injustice, the talk of war and the fear of crime we tend to believe the worst. The media with its focus on disaster does not help. But the statistics and the facts reveal another story. That should give us the strength and the hope to fight on. We can make the world a better place.