Friday, 24 January 2014

What a wonderful world

I wonder if I can persuade you that, despite the utter horror of this week's headlines from Syria, we are lucky to live in an era of unprecedented human progress. Yes, I'm going to try to convince you that for more people, in more places, the world has more to offer now than at any time in the history of our species.

Despite Syria. Or Ukraine, or Thailand, or South Sudan, or Central African Republic, or a dozen other hotspots of human misery. (I won't even mention the current state of the Lib Dems -- even I have my limits.)

There is, I hope, method in my madness, because I want to argue that however bad it looks, it's always worth trying to make it better. The temptation, when bombarded with so many images of human horror, is to turn away, to throw up our hands: "It's so awful, and there's nothing that anyone can do about it."

That's one reason why, according to yesterday's Guardian, the Ministry of Defence has concluded that there's "a growing reluctance in an increasingly multicultural Britain to see UK troops deployed on the ground in future operations abroad." After all, why send troops to risk their lives overseas if they're not doing any good anyway?

Incidentally, why do the opponents of international military intervention always quote Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as examples of why using the military inevitably makes a bad situation worse, but never Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo or East Timor, where it's perfectly possible to argue the opposite?

And while we're on the subject of military intervention, I can't help wondering if this week's report, validated by three highly respected international war crimes prosecutors, that thousands of prisoners in Syria have been systematically tortured and murdered, will reopen the debate about Western military action. After the chemical weapons attacks last year, I suggested that the Syria "horror-meter" still wasn't high enough for Western action -- I suspect it's just gone up several notches.

But back to my apparently idiotic notion that, despite everything, the world is in much better shape now than it has ever been. My principal witness is Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, who has just regained his title as the richest man in the world. In his 2014 annual letter, he writes: "By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient."

Gates and his wife Melinda run a global foundation through which they channel billions of dollars to help improve health care and reduce extreme poverty in the world's poorest countries.  They know more -- and do more -- about global poverty than almost anyone else. (I would admire them even more if Microsoft Windows weren't such a ghastly piece of software.)

Here, taken from Bill Gates's letter, are some of the data: "Since 1960, the life span for women in sub-Saharan Africa has gone up from 41 to 57 years, despite the HIV epidemic. Without HIV it would be 61 years. The percentage of children in school has gone from the low 40s to over 75 per cent since 1970. Fewer people are hungry, and more people have good nutrition. If getting enough to eat, going to school, and living longer are measures of a good life, then life is definitely getting better there."

It's not only Africa: Gates says that within the next 20 years, "every nation in South America, Asia, and Central America (with the possible exception of Haiti), and most in coastal Africa, will have joined the ranks of today’s middle-income nations. More than 70 per cent of countries will have a higher per-person income than China does today. Nearly 90 per cent will have a higher income than India does today."

Look at the health picture: 25 years ago, there were 350,000 new cases of polio every year. Now it's down to 400 and the number is still falling. In Cambodia, the number of people dying of malaria has dropped by 80 per cent in the past decade. What it means is that there are millions of people alive today who wouldn't be alive had they been born a generation earlier -- and millions are living healthier, happier and more productive lives than would have been the case even 20 years ago.

Last year I visited Sierra Leone and Democratic Republic of Congo to look at what United Nations agencies are doing to improve child health and reduce maternal mortality rates. I saw villages with clinics where before there had been none, and midwives in places where there had been none. They were saving lives, daily.

Ah, you are thinking. If more people are living longer, that means faster population growth and even more pressure on our planet's dwindling resources. Not so, in fact: when more children survive, women have fewer children and population growth slows. Bill Gates quotes Thailand as an example: "In the course of just two decades, Thai women went from having an average of six children to an average of two. Today, child mortality in Thailand is almost as low as it is in the United States, and Thai women have an average of 1.6 children."

None of this, I know, has any direct connection to what's happening in Syria or Ukraine. But it shows that not everything always gets worse, and that actions can make a difference. What's more, as we start four years of commemorating the centenary of the First World War, it's worth recalling that the world today, despite all the headlines, is almost certainly a more peaceful place than it has ever been. (The proposition is more fully argued in Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature, published in 2011.)

So have I convinced you? Have I at least given you some food for thought? I look forward to your responses.

By the way, my documentary for BBC Radio 4, The Road to Sochi, will be broadcast next Friday, 31 January, at 11am. Make a note in your diary -- but if you miss it, you can always catch up on iPlayer.


Unknown said...

For the vast majority of Chinese, the world certainly is not wonderful. Actually, it is quite a precarious place where a patient with a minor health problem might be told by the hospital that his symptoms are so severe that a dramatic overhaul is needed to save his life. Maybe a transplant of some kind or maybe a comprehensive MRI scan that costs months’ wages.
Yes, you guessed it, systematic rip-off at the expense of patient health and their hard-earned money. Also getting worse is the size of the smog that blankets a large proportion of the sky overhead, which has sent millions to the hospital with respiratory diseases. Villages used to be dotted with trees often are becoming barren due to short-sighted deforestation, while coal smoke turns a large part of the country grey and choking. For them (1/5 of the world’s population, mind), “wonderful” perhaps is far-fetched.

Jon W said...

Thank you. I think it is important to remember some of these facts and that there is a place for optimism. Also that doing something to make things a little better is more worthwhile than doing nothing and dispairing.

I've seen Hans Rosling use some similar data to similar encouraging effect.