The world is much better. The world is awful. The world can be much better. All three statements are true.
Here I focus on child mortality, but the same can be said for many aspects of global development. There are many aspects of development for which it is true that things have improved over time, which are terrible still, and for which we know that things can get better.
The world is awful
In the visualization below I present three scenarios of child deaths. The blue bar represents the actual number of child deaths per year today. Of the 141 million children born every year, 3.9% die before their 5th birthday. This means every year 5.5 million children die; on average, 15,000 children die every day.1
Clearly, a world where such tragedy happens is an awful world.
The world is much better
The big lesson of history is that things change. The scale of these changes is hard to grasp. The living conditions in today’s poorest countries are now in many ways much better than they were even in the richest countries of the past: Child mortality in today’s worst off places is between 10-13%; in all regions of the world it was more than three-times as high [30-50%] until a few generations ago. At the beginning of the 19th century, it’s estimated that 43% of the world’s children died by the age of five. If we still suffered the poor health of our ancestors more than 60 million children would die every year; 166,000 every day.2 This is what the red bar represents in the visualization below.
If you want to see how child mortality has changed read Hannah Ritchie's post from two days ago: From commonplace to rarer tragedy - declining child mortality across the world
Such large improvements are not limited to health; the same is true across other aspects (as I show in my short history of living conditions). In a number of fundamental aspects (obviously not all) we achieved very substantial progress and know that much more is possible. These aspects also include education, political freedom, violence, poverty, nutrition, and some aspects of environmental change.
What we learn from this is that it is possible to change the world. I believe that knowing that we can make a difference is one of the most important facts to know about our world.
The world can be much better
Progress over time shows that it was possible to change the world, but what do we know about what is possible for the future? Are we born at that unlucky moment in modern history at which global progress has to come to a halt?
Studying the global data suggests that the answer is no. One way to see this is to look at those places in the world with the best living conditions. The inequality in living conditions in the world today shows that there is much work left to do. If health across all countries of the world was equal it would not be possible to really know whether further improvements are possible or how to achieve them. But the fact that some places have already achieved much better child health leaves no doubt: better child health than the global average is not just possibility but already a reality.
So what would global child mortality be if children around the world would be as well off as the children in those places where children are healthiest today?
The dark green bar in the visualization shows the answer. The region with the lowest child mortality is the European Union. The average in the European Union (0.41%) is 10-times lower than the global average (3.9%).3 In the EU 1-in-250 children die, whilst globally this is 1-in-25. If children around the world would be as well off as children in the EU then 5 million fewer children would die every year.
Of course, a child mortality rate of 1-in-250 is still too high. It will be a major achievement if the world as a whole catches up to that level of health, but in the healthiest places we should also try to push the boundaries of what has shown to be possible.
We should certainly not make the mistake of believing that it would be easy to reduce global child mortality rate to that of the EU. For a society to achieve such good health many development aspects have to improve; today’s best-off countries achieved two centuries of slow, sustained economic growth that bought the infrastructure (housing, sanitation, public health measures) necessary for good health.
But while a better world cannot be achieved overnight, from the best-off regions we learn what is possible and in this sense we know that these 5 million annual deaths are preventable. The fact that child mortality in entire world regions is 10-fold lower than in the world as a whole shows us that it is possible to make the world a better place.
The world is terrible, this is why we need to know about positive change
It’s easier to scare people than to instill them with confidence and many writers on global development report on how awful the world is. I agree that it is important that we know what is wrong with the world, but given the scale of what we have achieved already and what is possible for the future, I think it’s irresponsible to only report on how dreadful our situation is.
The world is much better. The world is awful. The world can be much better. We have to study the data to know all three perspectives on global living conditions. By studying the world through data these facts are impossible to miss. But the facts of how the world is changing are not known to most of us because many of the writers that report on how the world is changing do not take the data seriously. This needs to change.
What we have to achieve as writers on global change is to convey both perspectives at the same: We need to know how terrible the world still is and that a better world is possible. This is what I hope to do. (For example in this text from earlier this year that Bill Gates published on his blog).
If we had achieved the best of all possible worlds I wouldn’t spend my life writing and researching about how we got here. What keeps me going is to share the knowledge that change is possible – though not inevitable – and the wealth of knowledge researchers around the world have brought together on how to make a better world for everyone.
We know that it is possible to make the world a better place because we already did it. It is because the world is terrible still that it’s so important to write about how the world became a better place.