Poverty, progress and the tipping point

Roger Partridge
The National Business Review
12 October, 2018

Something of enormous global significance has just occurred but it has slipped past almost without notice.

According to a report just released by the Brookings Institute, for the first time in history a majority of humanity is no longer poor or vulnerable to falling into poverty. A global tipping point has been reached, with just over 50% of the world’s population – or 3.8 billion people – now living in households with enough discretionary income to be considered “middle class” or “rich.”

To most people, this news will come as a surprise.

A survey by the Gapminder Project last year asked 12,000 people in 14 countries about poverty levels over the past two decades. Respondents were asked whether the proportion of the world's population living in extreme poverty has (a) almost doubled, (b) stayed the same, or (c) almost halved.

Fewer than 10% picked the correct answer. Extreme poverty has halved.

Yet this seems unknown to ordinary people the world over. Indeed, in none of the 14 countries surveyed did more than 25% of respondents answer correctly. Respondents were wrong more often than if they had selected an answer at random.

As the institute’s report reveals, fewer than 8% of the world’s population live in extreme poverty. While this is still a large number of people, in the 1950s the figure exceeded 40%. Indeed, the UN estimates that more people escaped extreme poverty in the second half of the 20th century than in the previous 500 years.

Should you ever feel despair over the daily news, a quick visit to www.worldpoverty.io may provide solace. It displays a graphic of the UN’s World Poverty Clock depicting the real-time reduction in extreme poverty globally. The average is close to 100,000 people daily.

Of course, those who escape extreme poverty are still poor. But there is no denying the astonishing improvement in the fortunes of humanity’s most impoverished in recent decades.

Why the progressophobia?

Against this background, it is curious that people do not sense that the poor are getting richer, or at least better off.

In his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, psychologist Stephen Pinker attributes our pessimistic predisposition to several causes.

The first is obvious. Bad news is newsworthy. As professor Pinker notes, we never see a journalist “reporting live from a country where war has not broken out.” Consequently, the media tends to concentrate on the negative. And as the world is large, the global media serves us a daily diet of catastrophes and disasters.

It is little wonder we have a negative impression of human plight.

Professor Pinker also suggests the human brain overestimates the risks of danger. The benefits of this for survival are obvious. But it means we prioritise bad news. Consequently, Americans rank tornadoes (which kill about 50 people in America a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills more than 4000).

The professor suggests these factors in combination lead to a negativity bias, darkening our view of the world.

The future looks brighter

Yet, as the figures from the Brookings Institute suggest, humankind’s future has never looked brighter.

The poor are getting richer, and at a faster rate than ever before. People are living longer. Indeed, globally, average life expectancy now exceeds 70 years.

Infant mortality rates have plummeted. Diets are improving the world over, including in sub-Saharan Africa where average daily calories consumed have increased since 1961 from 2001 to 2448.

The global prevalence of HIV/AIDS has been stable since 2001, with deaths from the disease declining from the increased availability of anti-retroviral drugs.

More children, including girls, are in education at all levels the world over. And physical violence is in decline.

Indeed, humanity is wealthier, healthier, better fed, more peaceful, safer, freer, more equal, more intelligent, more literate, and happier than ever before. And, if anything, the speed of human progress is accelerating.

Yet …

The history of human progress resembles a hockey stick. For thousands of years, extreme poverty was the human condition the world over. And in 1800 no country had a life expectancy of more than 40 years.

Growth only started to accelerate in the 18th century. First in Britain, then elsewhere in the Western world, and then globally.

Professor Pinker argues that humanity’s progress was rooted in the Enlightenment and the accompanying rise of science, humanism and reason. These laid the foundation for a new age of economic liberalism and prosperity, with changing attitudes toward markets, innovation and trade.

With the advent of global trade, all countries, big and small, had the opportunity to specialise and prosper. And prosper they have – despite the setbacks of world wars, proxy conflicts during the Cold War, and the less frequent incidence of conflict since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But in a new age of false facts, fake news and unreason, we can take nothing for granted. Today, economic liberalism faces a dual attack from populism and protectionism.

The world may be at a significant tipping point but that makes it all the more important to be on guard against the enemies of progress. Humanity can ill afford to turn back.

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