Factfulness: the need to eradicate inequality, not poverty

It must seem as if I listen to BBC Radio 4 all day long. I don’t, honest, but I freely confess to it being my main source of daily info, and being such a good source of stories from academia, many issues raised have ended up in this blog. Today is no different.

A recent ‘Book of the Week’ was Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think by Prof. Hans Rosling. Prof. Rosling has given a number of popular TED talks explaining the statistics behind global health and economics. Before his death in 2017, Rosling spent years asking global audiences simple questions about basic trends. How widespread is extreme poverty? What is life expectancy today? How many children in the world have been vaccinated? He quizzed everyone from medics and lecturers, to bankers, political decision makers, and Nobel Laureates. As Prof. Rosling explains, the results were always the same:

Everyone seems to get the world not only devastatingly wrong, but systematically wrong. By which I mean, that these test results are worse than random.
They are worse than the results I would get if the people answering my questions
had no knowledge at all“.

Identifying key evolutionary instincts that prevent us from seeing the world as it really is, Rosling asks us to fundamentally shift our view of the world. Sounds like my kinda guy! In his 2006 TED talk, Prof. Rosling points out the dangers of using ‘average data’ due to the differences within countries. It is nonsensical, for example, to discuss strategies for universal access to HIV care in Africa, which lumps the top quintile (20 per cent) of South Africa with the lowest quintile of Niger. The improvements in global health and wellbeing must be considered in much more detail than is possible from even ‘regional’ data. Why is this detailed data so often hidden behind a paywall and/or obscured by incomprehensibility? Publically-funded research data should be available for all. Enter Gapminder, an independent Swedish foundation with no political, religious or economic affiliations, co-founded by Hans Rosling to ‘liberate data’. According to its website, Gapminder is a fact tank, not a think tank. Gapminder fights devastating misconceptions about global development, produces free teaching resources and promotes a fact-based worldview everyone can understand. All good stuff, and timely.

Prof. Rosling isn’t clinically optimistic and uses pollution and waste as examples of situations which are much worse than we think. I don’t know how he rated the looming crisis from future energy constraints, or the depletion of our soils and other ecosystems but listening to Prof. Rosling talk about progress reminded me how important it is to decouple progress from consumption. This is one of the key areas which we seem incapable of dealing with. If progress requires poor people to (rightly) consume more natural resources than they do at present, and if we accept that we are reaching limits to both renewable and non-renewable resources due to our rate of consumption, then who will consume less and what are they going to do without?

It’s been a few years since the phrase ‘Make Millionaires History’ popped into my head. It’s quite simple, really—the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (2000 to 2015) led to the Make Poverty History campaign, a global movement to end extreme poverty. It is hard to gauge the effectiveness of that particular campaign as the percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty has been decreasing for decades, over most of the 20th century according to one of Prof. Rosling’s Gapminder graphics. Looking at ‘income’ shows that 70.4 per cent of the global population was living in extreme poverty in 1900, this falls to 61.3 per cent by 1945, continues falling to reach 50 per cent sometime between 1977 and 1978, had reached 41.7 per cent by 1990, 32.3 per cent by 2000, 14.7 per cent in 2010 and 11.6 per cent by 2015, the latest year available. It’s probably worth pointing out that Gapminder uses various sources (e.g. OECD, International Labour Organization, World Bank) for its data; the UN says that the global poverty rate decreased from 28 per cent in 1999 to 11 per cent in 2013—close enough.

Call me a cynic but I’d guess these falling figures for extreme poverty have more to do with globalisation than any moral awakening, but perhaps Make Poverty History pushed an open door even wider. No one sane could argue against ‘making poverty history’ but I think we need some factfulness here too. In 2016, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals which consist of 17 laudable yet improbable outcomes to be achieved by 2030, the first being to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”. Ending poverty will mean different things to different people and depending where you live, you may earn considerably more than $1.90/day and still live in extreme poverty. How is poverty to be ended ‘in all its forms’? And more importantly, can we decouple progress from consumption? How can we pull millions of people out of poverty, giving them access to clean water, green energy, decent food and sanitation while consuming less? Make Millionaires History looks to a day when there are no millionaires, not due to some calamitous civil uprising or economic crash, but because we made a radical shift from trying to eradicate poverty to eradicating inequality. Sadly there’s a lot to consider, discuss and fall out about before such an outrageous statement will not be seen as some left-wing threat to ‘our way of life’ but as a wake-up call about our way of life.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal.

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About The Cheery Pessimist

Waiting for some sign that we will change our ways before it all comes tumbling down...still, you've got to laugh
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