Inspirations: The Greatest Story in the World Today is the One the Media Haven’t Noticed


Hans Rosling in 2015 (Neil Fantom [CC / Flickr])

Hans Rosling likes to ask awkward questions:

  • If we randomly picked ten one-year-olds from across the world, how many of them would be vaccinated against measles? Two, five or eight?
  • According to current projections, how many children will there be in the world by the year 2100? four billion, three billion or two billion?
  • How has the percentage of people living in extreme poverty changed in the last 20 years? Has it doubled, halved, or remained the same?

Rosling put those questions to BBC journalist Ruth Alexander on the ten minute More or Less radio program earlier this year. They are drawn from the Global Ignorance Project, a project run by Rosling’s Gapminder foundation, which aims to demonstrate how little people know about the world they live in.

The answers are:

  • More than eight out of ten have been vaccinated against measles.
  • There will be around two billion children in the world by 2100.
  • The proportion of the world population in extreme poverty has halved in the last 20 years.


(Tambako The Jaguar [CC / Flickr])

If you got one of the three right, you did as well as Alexander. She is an experienced journalist who works for programs like More or Less and Analysis, which are considerably more evidence driven and less sensational than television journalism, yet she was unaware of fundamental facts about the state of the world. Rosling reassured her that she is not alone. When he asked the same question to an audience of economic experts at the World Economic Forum in Davos, only 38% knew that world poverty had halved, at least in percentage terms, in the last 20 years. Given three answers to choose from, that’s about the same number of correct answers as would be expected if they’d all picked one at random or, to put it in the terms Rosling used, the world experts did as well as we’d expect from the chimpanzees in the nearest zoo.

That was the question on which the experts performed best. The chimpanzees would have beaten them on two of the three questions.

The insanity agenda

Last year the United Nations announced its sustainable development goals for the world. Goal one, subsection 1.1 is unambiguous:

By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere.

Crazy, right?

We can’t turn on the news without hearing we’re besieged  by disasters, war and famine. So how is that agenda ever going to be achieved?

If you got all three questions right, that’s probably not what you’re thinking. If you didn’t, there’s a good chance that you’re basing your assessment on information that comes from journalists and experts who, on a good day, answer such questions as well as chimpanzees.

It’s an indication that it’s time to pay attention to Rosling himself, who makes it his business to stay abreast of the state of the world as it happens. Ruth Alexander introduced him as an ‘international development mythbuster’, a role he performed with his trademark eloquence and humour in a recent documentary, given below with subtitles but in higher resolution on the Gapminder website, along with the data sources.

Unofficial transcript

What is extreme poverty?

The documentary shows people who regard themselves as poor because they aren’t sure if they’ll be able to go to university. They are sincerely frustrated, and have a genuine grievance as they see opportunities closing down around them. But that is not what we mean when we talk about ‘extreme’ poverty.

A single definition is very difficult to pin down, as the same amount of money will buy different things in different parts of the world, and because the poorer people get, the more use they make of things that don’t come from a cash economy. In 1996, the UN defined extreme poverty as an income of less than one US dollar per day. The UN revised the figure to $1.25 per day in 2005, to take account of inflation, and has been adjusting it ever since. Rosling uses the figure of $1.85 per day. There is a degree of arbitrariness to the definition. Someone earning $1.86 per day is not massively better off than someone earning $1.84 per day.


(Amir Farshad Ebrahimi [CC / Flickr])

But to quibble over the definition is to miss the point. The problem of extreme poverty cannot be tackled without being quantified, and it cannot be quantified without being defined. There is no reasonable definition of extreme poverty that would not include someone living on $1.85 per day. Those are the people whose lives the UN aims to improve.

The trend is on the UN’s side

The questions at the beginning of the post are not just a game of ‘gotcha’. The answer to the third question, that the number of people living in extreme poverty has halved in the last 20 years, represents a monumental achievement that has been concealed behind the unrelenting stories of doom that the media feeds us on. Once we know the trend has been toward less hungry people over the last few decades, the current figure of 12% looks like a much more tractable problem than if we start with the chimpanzee economics of doom.

Rosling’s documentary delves behind the statistics to show us what it really means to be among those 12%. The lives of Janet and Dunster, a couple living in Northern Malawi, show us a man looking at his maize harvest for the year and calculating how many months his family will be hungry for before the next one.

Janet and Dunster’s also illustrate why completing the endgame of poverty elimination may be more difficult than getting to this point: their poverty is not caused by political problems. Since independence in 1964, Malawi has never been at war and every transition of one government to another has been peaceful and democratic. Janet and Dunster are not actively kept down. They just don’t have what they need to improve their situation.


The maize harvest in Matanda area, central Malawi (khym54 [CC / Flickr])

Their story also shows why economists versed in the world of clearly defined transactions often have problems dealing with the way the economy of the hungry works. Both Dunster and Janet earn money through what Malawians call ‘business’, a catch-all term for any trade other than formal employment. Dunster works implements out of scrap metal while Janet works maize flour into doughnut-like mandazi. Both of those generate some income, but they are still dependent on the maize they grow themselves. Meanwhile, they are trying to improve their circumstances by building a house with bricks that Dunster makes himself.

The economy of the poor involves a lot of small transactions and a large amount of self-reliance. It’s very difficult to easily understand who earns what and how, and consequently very difficult to structure an intervention that will improve peoples’ situations.

A little money for a little progress

Dunster knows what will help: he wants to divert water to irrigate his fields. It’s the sort of small project that aid agencies, whether they are run by foreign governments or charities, tend to be very bad at. Most of them are organised to handle a small number of large donations, which is not much help to a very large number of people like Dunster and Janet who need a small project of a few hundred dollars. It doesn’t help that to even assess the project, someone would have to spend several hours in a cloud of dust as they travel the unpaved roads to Dunster’s village.


Homemade go-karts on Mpingwe Hill, Malawi (DJ Cockburn [CC / Flickr])

Remote as Dunster’s home may appear, he has probably benefitted from modern technology in the last ten years. If he doesn’t have a phone, he can almost certainly contact possible trading partners with a phone somewhere in the village. Meanwhile, the appearance of phones with GPS has made it easy for aid agency and government officers to find addresses in areas they are not familiar with, which helps to connect people like Dunster to sources of aid.

The myth of poverty and population

There are those who think it is a mistake to elevate the position of people like Dunster and Janet because they think it will encourage them to bring more children into an over-populated world. They are the people have bought into another myth, which is that more income means more children. In fact, there is a correlation between the number of children per family and their income, but it works in the opposite direction. Better off people have less children. The correlation is remarkably consistent across different cultures, as Rosling himself explained far better than I ever could in his 2012 TED talk:

Subtitles and transcript

Birth rates are falling across the world, and have been for some time. As Rosling says, the year with the highest number of babies born was around 1990. World population has continued to increase due to the ‘fillup effect’ he describes: there are simply more people to have babies, even if they are having fewer babies each. If current trends continue, we are in lag period as population trends take some time to follow trends in birth rate.

The only region where birth rates are still above the replacement rate of 2.33 children per couple is the poorest: Sub-Saharan Africa. Malawi, which is populated mostly by people like Janet and Dunster, has the second highest population growth rate in the world even though it ranks 227th out of 230 in terms of per capita GDP.


Queue to register for family planning services in rural Kenya (DFID – UK Department for International Development [CC / Flickr])

There is no single clear reason why people have less children when they are better off. It may be that parents have less children when they are confident that they will survive, and when they expect to have to support them through school. It may be that as countries become wealthier, more people move to the cities where accommodation is a limiting factor. It’s almost certainly the case that more wealth means more people have access to contraception and family planning. No one reason is likely to hold true across different countries and cultures, but there are so many reasons that some of them are bound to be relevant in any given place.

In any case, the effect is an irrefutable counter-argument to anyone who thinks that if we’re fortunate enough to live in a high income country, we can’t afford to help less fortunate people out of poverty. The truth is that we can’t afford not to.

The hidden truth

So why is it that so many people, from experts to laymen, think that poverty is on the increase while the population bomb is exploding around them?

In the More or Less Podcast, Rosling said, ‘I consider this one of the biggest events in the history of mankind, that the number of children has stopped increasing’. Ruth Alexander, one of the world’s better informed journalists, ruefully replied, ‘And I missed it’.

Rosling pressed home the point: ‘the big, mighty BBC has never told its listeners that the number of children has stopped increasing’.


Population change since 1950 and projected to 2050, published in 2008. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently admitted to part of the reason:

That reflects a selection bias in how we report the news: We cover planes that crash, not planes that take off. Indeed, maybe the most important thing happening in the world today is something that we almost never cover: a stunning decline in poverty, illiteracy and disease.

Consequently, most people believe that world poverty and population trends are the opposite of what they actually are.

Ignorance matters

If you got those three questions at the beginning wrong, does it matter? You’re probably not involved in alleviating world poverty or forming your country’s foreign policy, so what does it matter if you don’t know what’s going on?

It matters because according to the WordPress stats for this blog, you are probably a voter in one of the world’s richest countries. If you are, your country has a foreign policy and a foreign aid budget that will be discussed next time someone wants you to vote for them.

It matters because of people like Godfrey Bloom, a senior member of the UK Independence Party, who notoriously said:


Godfrey Bloom in 2009 (Euro Realist Newsletter [CC / Flickr])

How we can possibly be giving a billion pounds a month when we’re in this sort of debt to bongo bongo land is completely beyond me.

It may well be beyond him, but it really should not be difficult to understand for a member of a party that campaigns on reducing immigration: Foreign aid is part of the reason why poverty is on the wane. If people are not living in extreme poverty, they are less likely to join politically extreme groups that stir up conflicts that produce refugees. An analysis on the origins of the Syrian Civil War, which I pontificated about a few weeks ago, shows exactly why Bloom would be demanding an increase in foreign aid if he’s serious about reducing immigration.

Ever the charmer, Bloom was later sacked from UKIP for saying the UKIP conference audience was full of sluts. While Bloom’s demise is regretted more by satirists hungry for material than UKIP members, UKIP retained foreign aid cuts in its 2015 election manifesto and won a won a substantial 13% of the popular vote.


A small scale irrigation project in Malawi (CIDSE – together for global justice [CC / Flickr])

Most people do not lack compassion, and it’s likely that so many people are in favour of cutting foreign aid because they think it is ineffective rather than because they are opposed to helping people less fortunate than themselves. It’s a conclusion that’s easy to draw if you believe the chimpanzee economics that says poverty is on the rise.

Even if we in the wealthy parts of the world take an entirely self-serving view, it’s in our interest to reduce poverty if it reduces conflicts that we are likely to become involved in.

Rosling concludes the documentary with the only sensible response to anyone who has reservations about fulfilling the UN goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030:

It would be mad not to do it.

Has seeing the figures changed your perception of the world we live in? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

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