A convenient truth

10-05-2016
Author: Ellen de Lange
Source: OneWorld
Photo: Serge Ligtenberg
Interview – 

Teaching statistics in a spectacular and humorous way. It seems impossible, however, Swedish professor Hans Rosling (67) proofs it isn’t. His mission: to correct our outdated worldview. Rosling passed away February 2017, a little over year since OneWorld's interview.

Bio Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling was born in 1948 in the Swedish city of Uppsala. He studied statistics and medicine in Sweden and India. Later he worked as a doctor in Mozambique, where he discovered a rare paralysis disease. He researched the disease for twenty years in remote areas of Africa, and received his doctorate on the topic in 1986. Rosling has promoted scientific cooperation with universities in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin-America. He initiated new courses on global health and co-authored a textbook on this topic which emphasized the importance of a fact-based worldview. Rosling made several documentaries on global statistics for the BBC, one of them being Don’t Panic –The Truth About Population. Together with his son and daughter-in-law he started the Gapminder Foundation in 2005. Among other things the foundation develops software to create interactive infographics with, which has been awarded multiple prizes. In 2012, Time Magazine named Rosling among the 100 most influential people in the world.

“Let’s start the world!”, he calls out, and on the screen a bunch of colored dots, representing the countries of the world, are set in motion. With a self-made pointer -a paper arrow on a stick- the professor points out to us what progress the world has made. In almost all countries the average income rises and the number of children per woman declines. “Isn’t that incredible?!”, he exclaims. Rosling showed his skills in The Hague last January, at an event with Bill Gates, co-organized by OneWorld. In the preparations for this event his perfectionism was almost too much for colleague Kim, who was in charge of the organization. The screen had to be exactly one-and-a-half meters from the stage and he had to visit the location one day ahead of the event to test the technical appliances. Still, his minute preparation paid off. The whole room laughs at his well-timed jokes and is taken with amazement by his revelations. After the Gates-event Rosling has his lunch with the richest man on earth and, following this, he makes time for OneWorld to talk about the poorest people on this planet.

Your message today was: we don’t realize it, but the world is improving.

“I played a quiz about the world with the audience, with questions like: how old do people get on average? How many girls get to attend school and how many people have access to electricity? The reality is that people get to be 70 on average, that 80 percent of girls goes to school and that almost everyone has access to electricity. But almost no one knew this! And this while the audience was filled with heads of development organizations. Our worldview is shaped as if it is still 1965. Then, we had a group of rich countries -the West- and a large group of poor countries – the developing countries. In the rich countries people got old and women had two children on average. In the rest of the world people had short lives and five to six children. There was almost nothing in between these two extremes. That's perfect for our brain! But that world doesn’t exist anymore.”

The media don't tell us what the world is really like.

 

What does the world look like then?

“There are countries on every level. And the averages of all countries are closer to the best than to the worst. Take Indonesia for example. That’s not a developing country any longer. It is a higher middle-income-country [MIC red.]. Women have 2,4 children on average and the child mortality rate under five years is 3,3 percent. This means Indonesia is on the same level as the Netherlands was on in 1972. Every year things improve in Indonesia, that’s amazing progress!”

Why are the number of children per mother and infant mortality such important indicators to decide how well a country is doing?

“Because these two numbers summarize so much else. Child mortality is the summary of what kind of water you have in your home, on how many square meters you live, how much education you have had and whether you have access to healthcare. Moreover: there is nothing you wouldn’t sacrifice to ensure that your child survives. Can you tell me anything more important than that?”

No nothing. I have a toddler at home, so I couldn’t agree more.

“Exactly, so this is incredibly important. And then the birth rate. You have a child now, but long before that you had sex, right?”

Yes…

“You have disconnected sexuality from reproduction! Isn’t that great?! The entire religious-cultural system we used to have was aimed at prohibiting this. You weren’t allowed to have sex before marriage, and then you got -as God intended- a child. Now you can start your sexual life whenever you want. This is one of the most important achievements in life. One day you reach the point where you don’t say to your partner: “Honey, let’s have sex tonight”, but: “Honey, let’s make a baby tonight”. I know I antagonize some people by saying this in such a way, because you cannot have a child on command, but this detachment signifies a huge turning point. This shift hasn’t only occurred in Christian countries. In Islamic nations the same is happening.

The world is faring a lot better than we all think.


Why do we have an incorrect worldview?

“Because we aren’t told differently. The media don't tell us what the world is really like. Have you ever seen the newspaper headline: ‘The number of children in the world is not rising any longer’? No one writes about gradual changes. And then, suddenly the world has changed so much, that we cannot believe it. People still read Tintin. A beautiful story, but outdated by decades. That the world isn’t about ‘us’ and ‘them’ any longer is something that is only very slowly becoming accepted. You can compare it with the emancipation of women. Fact is that women are just as capable as men are to become prime-minister. But it took centuries before this fact was accepted.”

The world is faring a lot better than we all think. But this doesn’t include everyone. There are still almost a billion people who live in poverty. Will their living conditions also improve soon?

“No. In the past 15 years extreme poverty has diminished by 50 percent [extreme poverty means living on less than 1,25 dollar a day red.]. But the low-hanging fruit has now been picked. Mister Gates told me that he just visited the Democratic Republic of Congo. His foundation is trying to improve the living conditions for the people there, but they are making little progress. Development aid in countries where there is much less corruption is much easier. This is why aid is often focused on poor people in low to high middle-income-countries, but not the very poorest of countries. If you want to achieve results with the money you spend on aid, give it to Denmark!”

This seems unnecessary. But, will aid save the world?

“The United Nations have set a number of global goals, the first of these goals is to eliminate extreme poverty in the world. Besides it being a moral duty, eliminating extreme poverty is a very important investment, because it is a fertile breeding ground for extremism and rapid population growth. Still, the lion’s share of the development aid funds we spend globally isn’t focused on eliminating extreme poverty. We have to quit giving aid money to high middle-income-countries, such as China, Brazil, Indonesia and South-Africa. They can take care of their own poor. We have to spend more money on extreme poor people in low middle-income-countries, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Malawi and Mozambique.”

“During the gathering today, young social entrepreneurs presented their ideas to mister Gates. Beautiful ideas, but those projects have no effect on extreme poverty. One of the plans was to provide prostheses to people in Colombia, who had a leg amputated, in a swifter and cheaper manner. But in Colombia there are only so many people with amputated limbs, because there are hospitals! In Congo most people die if they step on a landmine. The next step is crutches. This means they can walk. The step after this is a prosthesis and finally -in rich countries- a modified car. The prostheses in Colombia are nice, but we shouldn’t forget that most people with handicapped legs need a crutch!”

So, we are helping the wrong poor people?

“Yes. From our point of view in the rich end of the world we don’t see the difference between poverty and extreme poverty. We see a poor man with a crutch. We see his lack of a prosthesis, not the great crutches he already has. Extreme poverty means being uncertain every day whether or not you will be able to eat. We have to learn to distinguish and recognize that poverty knows many different levels.”

Branko Milanovic

Visual: Branko Milanovic, World Bank.

Poverty even occurs in rich countries.

“That’s true, although then we speak of relative poverty. This is very different from extreme poverty. But the poorest people in rich countries is the other group of people who are not faring better than before. In high-income-countries the rich get richer and the inequality rises. The lowest class of people in high-income-countries cannot make similarly splendid holiday trips as their parents could. While extreme poverty is the breeding ground for Boko Haram, the frustration of the low-paid workers is the breeding ground for the Donald Trumps of this world. But will the Donald Trumps address extreme poverty? Very unlikely. The combination of these two issues is the great challenge of our time.

Ellen de Lange

Ellen de Lange is coordinator of the OneWorld data desk and editor on climate...

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