Why so negative? A data exploration of the world

Talking to people around me or spending just a minute on the Internet I get the impression that the world is going down the drain. War all over the place. Politics is all corrupt. The rich exploit the poor. There are just a few developed countries and a huge, faceless mass of poverty stricken nations. Wildfires, catastrophes, climate change. It seems like we‘re all going to die every minute now.

Let‘s have a look at some facts:
Absolute poverty? There‘s the impression, that down South, e.g. in Africa (to broadly over generalise a whole continent) everything is poverty, sadness and despair. And, true there is still a lot of poverty, a lot of places without proper access to drinking water or electricity. But if you compare the state of affairs today with just a few decades ago, things look quite different.

On the next two pages there are a number of graphs with explanations that show the decline in poverty over the last decades as well as about “developed” and “undeveloped” data.

I don‘t want to suggest that everything is perfect and we can sit back and stop working on improving this world. Poverty still exists, relative poverty is still poverty. There are still wars, new ones are emerging. The climate crisis is accelerating and threatens to destroy many of the improvements I mentioned. There are a whole lot of things to be concerned about.

But we can see that improvement is indeed possible. Change for the better can and does happen, everyday. The big danger of pessimism is complacency and fatalism. If I can‘t change anything and everything gets worse, why should I try then? If all that development aid is useless and there‘s no improvement, let‘s slash it and get some new fancy weapons instead. That kind of thinking can actually make things worse, fulfilling its own prophecy. Instead, looking at the numbers, I propose to say: Yes, there are a lot of problems, but step by step we can work on them and solve them. Not everything is good but not everything is bad either.

Extreme poverty

Extreme poverty has fallen from 40% to about 10% of the worlds population just in the last 35 years.
(Defined as having less than 1,90$ per day; adjusted for price differences between countries and over time). That is astonishing. And surely, that does not mean that everybody enjoys the same living standard as e.g. people in the Netherlands or Canada. However, it does mean that a majority of people on the world has food everyday, access to clean drinking water, at least basic medical care, a roof over their heads etc. And that is a huge difference to struggling to survive every day.

poverty-decline world

One might argue that because of the exponential development of the world’s population, there‘s still, in absolute numbers, more people in extreme poverty than there were back in the old times.
Let’s see what the numbers say:
Around 1850 about 1.26 billion people lived on earth. Of those about 1,08 billion lived in extreme poverty. In 2015 about 7,35 billion people lived on earth. Of those, about 733 million (0,73 billion) in extreme poverty.



We often divide the world in developed and undeveloped countries. Does that hold up?
Now, there‘s a number of ways to define undeveloped. Let‘s take the number of children in a family and the average life expectancy at birth. Why? Life expectancy indicates factors such as access to healthcare, food and water. And lower birthrates tend to correlate with economic development, education and higher income. (There‘s not enough space to go into details but for whomever is interested in that I suggest to look up the „Demographic transition model“.)
Let‘s take a high number of children and low life expectancy as a definition for undeveloped countries and the opposite for developed countries.

Graph 1965
(Source: Gapminder.com (https://bit.ly/2qUzKhL), boxes added by the author of the article)

Now what we see in the first graph is that there‘s a lot of countries that are undeveloped and just a few made it up to the upper left hand developed corner.
But what‘s that? That is the graph for 1965.

graph 2018
(Source: Gapminder.com (https://bit.ly/2qUzKhL), boxes added by the author of the article)

The second graph shows the world of 2017, surprise, where are all the undeveloped countries gone? Most of them have become middle income countries by now. That does not necessarily mean the exact same living standard as in e.g. Sweden but it does show a vast improvement in just about 50 years and it shows that this binary of developed and undeveloped is not entirely true anymore.

Mathis Gilsbach

This article was inspired by reading the book “Factfulness” by Swedish statistician Hans Rosling and his gapminder foundation. If you are interested to dig deeper into the data not only on poverty but also on education, economic development, healthcare etc. you can look on:
ourworldindata.com which provides graphs with detailed explanations and context
gapminder.com is a little more accessible and has useful data visualisation tools as well es explanation videos about different topics
Data sources used by gapminder: Fertility rate: gapminder.org/data/documentation/gd008/
Life expectancy: gapminder.org/data/documentation/gd004/

Cover photo by NASA on Unsplash

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