The World Got Better in the Last 20 Years
It’s the holiday season.
This is the time for us to count our blessings.
To take stock of all the good things we have.
And to express gratitude for those parts of life that are actually wonderful.
Normally, we think of the good stuff as family and friends and personal health …
Hot chocolate … our aunt’s famous peanut butter bars …
Thrash metal in the background if you come from that kind of family.
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When it comes to world affairs however, people rarely feel like getting into the holiday spirit.
The environment is being destroyed.
The other political party is on the verge of ruining the country.
There are wars in this place and that place and the other place.
Cops shoot innocent people all over the place.
Ethnic groups all hate each other – and the fighting gets worse and worse and worse.
Schools are falling apart.
Health care is falling apart.
And the San Antonio Spurs are stinking up the house.
(Substitute a team you care about if you have one.)
This gloom and doom is well conceived.
All the bad stuff discussed above is really happening.
I wrote a book called All Societies Die that is all about the processes of decline the world really faces.
There are very real storm clouds out there.
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However, people are notoriously ungrateful.
We notice everything that is wrong.
We take all the good things in their lives for granted.
When those good things go away, we complain rightly about our losses.
But we never appreciate the good stuff when we have it.
In this holiday season, it makes sense to take a look at the good stuff we still have.
The things that are still working.
The ways in which life is improving and in which human misery is being steadily reduced.
We live in one of the most prosperous and comfortable periods in human history.
The readers of this website well off.
Most of this website’s readers are from the United States or Europe, regions that are relatively prosperous.
However, the world as a whole is doing well.
Global levels of prosperity and human comfort are increasing.
This applies not only to the world as a whole but to people in the poorest parts of the world, the officially-designated low income nations.
People don’t usually spend their holiday seasons poring over statistics. But the actual statistics sitting out there are a bona fide source of comfort and joy.
Let’s look at the changes that have occurred in the world between 2001 and 2020, the most recent year for which data are available.
(Hey folks, it takes work for the census keepers of the world to compile their statistics. They are allowed to have their holidays in 2022, and report their 2022 figures in 2023.)
Those numbers actually look pretty darn cheerful.
Between 2001 and 2020, the world got significantly richer. Global levels of GDP per capita went up 67% in the last 20 years.
Levels of prosperity increased by TWO THIRDS.
Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in.
The second row of the table refers to low income countries. Keep in mind that the World Bank divides the world into high income, upper-middle income, lower-middle income, and low income. So low income on this table refers to very poor countries like Somalia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For the World Bank, countries like Mexico, India or China are considered to be too rich to count as low income. Those are in one of the two intermediate categories.
GDP per capita in the very low income countries improved 45% between 2001 and 2020. A 45% improvement in economic standards of living is quite a lot.
All in all, the world is economically better off.
* 2020 estimated from 2016 thru 2019 trends
A legitimate objection to the use of GDP per capita to measure global economic well being is that in many countries, income is concentrated at the top. There is a small upper elite that is fabulously wealthy. There are enormous masses of poor people living on nothing. Changes in GDP per capita can simply reflect the rise of super-wealth at the top.
A more straightforward way to measure economic misery is to ask what percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. The World Bank has multiple poverty measures. One of the most severe indices measures poverty as living on less than $2.15 a day. Finding food, housing, clothing and medical care on $2.15 a day is very difficult. Yet much of the world really lived that way.
Or used to.
In 2001, 28% of the global population and 36% of the population of the poorest countries lived in extreme poverty. In 2020, those numbers were 9% and 8% respectively. This is a staggering reduction in levels of global poverty. In the low income countries, there was nearly an 80% reduction in levels of extreme poverty.
(People living in poverty but not extreme poverty are unquestionably very poor. Lots of those people still exist. But those numbers are improving too.)
Educational levels are improving as well. Fortunately, the world was already in semi-good shape in 2001 on levels of literacy. Over 80% of adults worldwide and over half of adults in the poorest countries knew how to read. However the last twenty years saw improvement on this indicator too.
Literacy improved by almost 20% in the poorest countries, and by a small amount at the global level.
Hunger was significantly reduced in the last 20 years. In 2001, 13 percent of the world and over a third of the population of the poorest countries were undernourished. Undernourishment was reduced by nearly 30% globally. It was reduced by only 15% in the poorest countries. Many of the improvements were among the poverty populations of middle income countries. Brazil for example is considered to be an upper-middle income nation. Nevertheless, its rural Northeast is extremely poor with high levels of food insecurity. Northeastern India has long standing problems with hunger despite India being a lower-middle income nation. Regions like these saw significant improvements in food security. The low income countries saw a smaller but real improvement in food availability. The fact that malnutrition is declining in the poorest nations is remarkable, particularly in the light of recent famines due to warfare and global warming.
In the Global South, much of the population lacks access to basic clean water and sanitation. One indicator of the state of cleanliness is whether people have to openly defecate because they lack access to toilets. Note that toilets in this case do not have to be Western flush toilets. Turkish toilets, pit latrines and holes in the floor for human waste all count as toilets by World Bank definition. The open defecation measures presented here refer to people having to squat in whatever public place they can find, because there is no dedicated location for having a bowel movement.
The last twenty years has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of people having to defecate in the open. In 2001, over 20% of the world population, and nearly 40% of the population of the poorest countries had to defecate without toilets. The improvement in access to toilets has been dramatic. Globally, there was nearly a 70% reduction in the amount of open defecation. In the poorest countries, there was a reduction in open defecation of over 50%.
Think about the effect this clean-up would have on infectious disease, on general health, and in the general pleasantness of the overall environment.
These changes have produced significant improvements in human health. Between 2001 and 2020, human life expectancy increased by nearly five years.
Think about this.
Think about this hard.
Human beings throughout the world received an additional 5 years of life between 2001 and 2020.
Five years of life is precious.
The improvements were even more dramatic in the poorest countries. The populations of the poorest countries had their lifespans extended by nearly ten years between 2021 and 2020.
Nearly ten years.
Despite all the famines,
Despite the Ebola and the Zika and West Nile Fever and Dengue and AIDS,
Despite all the warfare,
Despite all the crime,
The people in the poorest nations had their lives extended by nearly ten years.
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There is much to be grateful in this holiday season, for ourselves and for the poor.
Money, prosperity, education, food., and access to basic sanitation are all good.
The world and the poor got a lot of these in the last twenty years.
But the greatest gift of all is life.
Human beings around the world got to live longer.
For this, we should give our most sincere and heartfelt thanks.