Global poverty is solvable – just watch this

gapminder.jpgFascinating editorial in this week’s issue of Nature arguing that “Many ‘developing’ countries are much more developed than some people think. Their rapid progress should inspire scientists and their institutions to do more to confront global poverty.”

The immensity of the problem of continuing grinding poverty in the “developing” world tends to make those of us lucky ones in the north feel a sense of impotence about what to do (rather like the response to global climate change).  But, in fact, many countries have made remarkable progress in life expectancy, per capita income, and other measures of well-being over recent decades. 

hans_rosling.jpgHow do we know this?  There are mountains of dry demographic data out there but how to make sense of it all?  A picture is worth a thousand words, and a moving picture may be worth a million.  Enter Dr. Hans Rosling, a global-health researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who has developed an ingenious, intuitive, and compelling software for visualizing trends in world health and well-being.  Examples of what he’s done are posted at his website, Gapminder. There’s a lot of really cool stuff here but check out especially the animations in Gapminder World 2006, which show progress in alleviating poverty in any country in the world over the last half century.

Has the world become a better place in recent decades?  Watch this — it really blew me away.  And for a characteristically striking and intuitive animation showing how the proportion of people worldwide that live below the poverty line has decreased in recent decades — and is on track for meeting the millennium development goal by 2010 — see Human Development Trends 2005.

voters.jpgPoverty is obviously a critical international issue for basic humanitarian reasons.  But it is also important, perhaps less obviously, for nature conservation and the urgently needed transition to an environmentally sustainable world.  Many experts argue, cogently I think, that eradication of poverty through development of effective governments and functional market economies is the only way to reach sustainability in the long run (the picture shows people waiting in line to vote in Sierra Leone).  This would seem to be an issue that people from all parts of the ideological spectrum can get behind.  Strengthening democractic institutions and free markets has always been a core conservative value, for example. 


About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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2 Responses to Global poverty is solvable – just watch this

  1. Don says:

    Rosling deserves the Nobel Peace Prize with his oblique tack to orthodox economics (those in economics departments as opposed to those in in resource economics departments- the former pay little attention to the latter) in attacking poverty or dealing with environmental issues. An important subtle element in Rosling’s Gap Minder video is the history of the condition of women. Do read the Nature editorial carefully, it actually is pretty radical. “wealth creation” means using people and the environment world to generate capital, which is portable.

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks for visiting, and for the insightful comment, Don. Expanding on your points, the Nature editorial notes:

    “[Rosling] also highlights the importance of factors such as good governance and institutional capacity building, showing, for instance, that although economic growth is the motor of escape from poverty, that escape is achieved faster when public health is improved.” (Maybe also a lesson for us in the USA there?)

    “In one welcome initiative, the World Bank has embraced an innovative approach to evaluation. Pioneered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, it borrows the techniques of randomized trials used in medicine to assess the impact of health and education initiatives, such as bed nets for malaria, and the factors that affect their success.” Another radical idea — test social policies based on empirical data on whether they actually work!