Professor of global health Hans Rosling delivered an intense TED talk on the development of the world. He demonstrates what I would call ‘theatrical statistics’ to great effect. The talk is a gem, and comes highly recommended.
People don’t know the facts
Rosling’s research indicates that even among the best educated people in the world, we have very fundamental gaps in knowledge. Segments of society who we generally think should be well aware of the state of the world are actually surprisingly ignorant about the facts of development. What happens for instance is our preconceived notions of ‘rich world’ and ‘third world’ colour our vision of what is going on. Questioned about the hard facts of the matter, even the best of us can score quite poorly. Our knowledge of what is actually going on in the world is much more limited than we think it is.
Advancement of health and wealth
Showing a graph of income per capita vs life expectancy at birth, Rosling demonstrates the epic proportions of human advancement in the last 180 years or so. While demonstrating the changes on his graphs, he delivers a rapid-fire description of the major political choices and world forces that are driving the change. Some of these include the rise of industrialism bringing up life expectancies in the rich world, China’s successful health measures under Mao, and then their subsequent economic rise under Deng Xiaoping. The AIDS epidemic in the 90s drags down the life expectancy of most of the sub-Saharan African nations. He ends in present day with a profoundly accurate “…and we have a completely new world.”
We underestimate the tremendous change that has occurred in Asia in the last hundred years. In previous decades, the main problem in the world was not poverty in Africa, it was poverty in Asia. We tend to underestimate the change in Asia because social changes preceded significant economic change. He is saying that Asia laid the foundations for its current economic growth during the preceding decades. In terms of the ladder of economic development, the major countries of Asia are now on the ladder and climbing.
Diversity of conditions in Africa
We also tend to massively underestimate the diversity of economic conditions within places such as Africa. Africa is not a country. There is for instance a huge difference between Sierra Leone and Mauritius. In one place you see a massive need for humanitarian aid, and in the other you see a possible holiday destination.
Health cannot be bought at the supermarket
Health and wealth are very strongly related. Rosling says that 80% of the variance of health can be explained by wealth. This means that we know that increased wealth is extremely strongly correlated with longer lifespans. There are some interesting details however. It seems that you can advance much faster as a nation if you are healthy first than if you are wealthy first. Rosling elaborates: “Health cannot be bought at the supermarket.” He makes it clear that health is an investment. You have to build infrastructure, you have to train people, and you have to educate the whole population.
We at Vision of Earth believe that there is an additional facet of this development that should be commented on. The advancing wealth of the western world is primarily what drove our knowledge of medical science, and our innovation of health practices and infrastructure. Today, these things are already known, allowing countries to begin to adopt them at a lower level of income. The poorer states of the world today can enjoy some of the benefits from the advanced medical knowledge of the world. We believe this is one major reason why Asia has had such tremendous success with their pursuit of health during the times that Rosling points out. Their improved health then became a foundation for improving their wealth at a rapid pace.
Poverty solutions must be contextual
Using averages is dangerous because there can be great differences within countries. This is because much of the wealth can be concentrated among relatively few people. He splits some countries up by quintile, and it is really educational to see how far the spread can be. He says that we cannot expect to use the same strategies to address problems with different segments of society that experience very different economic realities. “The improvement of the world must be highly contextualized.”
Liberating the world’s data
Data on these subjects is much better than people think. The error margins of the data are generally much smaller than the differences between the values we are looking at. For the most part, data up until now has been expensive, secured, and boring. He started www.gapminder.org with the intent to change that. They are working on making all of the major statistical information collected worldwide available and approachable to the public, and they are doing a great job.
If you are interested in the forces that are shaping the world of economics, and in the progress of the world, watch the talk.