We journalists are a bit like vultures, feasting on war, scandal and disaster. Turn on the news, and you see Syrian refugees, Volkswagen corruption, dysfunctional government.
Yet that reflects a selection bias in how we report the news: We cover planes that crash, not planes that take off. Indeed, maybe the most important thing happening in the world today is something that we seldom cover: a stunning decline in poverty, illiteracy and disease.
Huh? You’re wondering what I’ve been smoking! Everybody knows about the spread of war, the rise of AIDS and other diseases, the hopeless intractability of poverty.
One survey found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Another 29 percent believed that the proportion had remained roughly the same.
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That’s 95 percent of Americans — who are utterly wrong. In fact, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty hasn’t doubled or remained the same. It has fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).
When 95 percent of Americans are completely unaware of a transformation of this magnitude, that reflects a flaw in how we journalists cover the world — and I count myself among the guilty. Consider:
• The number of extremely poor people (defined as those earning less than $1 or $1.25 a day, depending on who’s counting) rose inexorably until the middle of the 20th century, then roughly stabilized for a few decades. Since the 1990s, the number of poor has plummeted.
• In 1990, more than 12 million children died before the age of 5; this toll has since dropped by more than half.
• More kids than ever are becoming educated, especially girls. In the 1980s, only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school; now, 80 percent do.
Granted, some 16,000 children still die unnecessarily each day. It’s maddening in my travels to watch children dying simply because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But one reason for our current complacency is a feeling that poverty is inevitable — and that’s unwarranted.
The world’s best-kept secret is that we live at a historic inflection point when extreme poverty is retreating. U.N. members have just adopted 17 new Global Goals, of which the centerpiece is the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Their goals are historic. There will still be poor people, of course, but very few who are too poor to eat or to send children to school. Young journalists or aid workers starting out today will in their careers see very little of the leprosy, illiteracy, elephantiasis and river blindness that I have seen routinely.
“We live at a time of the greatest development progress among the global poor in the history of the world,” notes Steven Radelet, a development economist and Georgetown University professor, in a terrific book coming in November, “The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World.”
“The next two decades can be even better and can become the greatest era of progress for the world’s poor in human history,” Radelet writes.
I write often about inequality, a huge challenge in the U.S. But globally, inequality is diminishing, because of the rise of poor countries.
What does all this mean in human terms? I was thinking of that last week while interviewing Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Nobel Peace Prize winner. Malala’s mother grew up illiterate, like the women before her, and was raised to be invisible to outsiders. Malala is a complete contrast: educated, saucy, outspoken and perhaps the most visible teenage girl in the world.
Even in countries like Pakistan, the epoch of illiterate and invisible women like Malala’s mother is fading; the epoch of Malala is dawning. The challenge now is to ensure that rich donor nations are generous in supporting the Global Goals — but also that developing countries do their part, rather than succumbing to corruption and inefficiency. (I’m talking to you, Angola!)
There’s one last false argument to puncture. Cynics argue that saving lives is pointless, because the result is overpopulation that leads more to starve. Not true. Part of this wave of progress is a stunning drop in birthrates.
Haitian women now average 3.1 children; in 1985, they had six. In Bangladesh, women now average 2.2 children. Indonesians, 2.3. When the poor know that their children will survive, when they educate their daughters, when they access family planning, they have fewer children.
So let’s get down to work and, on our watch, defeat extreme poverty worldwide. We know that the challenges are surmountable — because we’ve already turned the tide of history.