This morning (Wednesday, November 17) I am in Washington moderating the launch of the United Nations Human Development Report 2010, one of the world’s significant documents. Most of what we hear on the news is a noisy blur of specifics even the participants can’t remember a week later. This annual report details The Big Picture: the economic, social, educational, political and health care situations of the world’s nations. The report is roughly 10,000 times more important than the Wall Street data, political polls and sports stats we obsess over.
Perhaps you assume that as a product of the United Nations, the report is political hot air. Quite the contrary: the report is candid, factual and rational, because it’s written at the United Nations Development Programme, which functions independent of the General Assembly and Security Council. United Nations population forecasts and agricultural analysis have high standing among experts. So, too, does the Human Development Report.
And perhaps you assume that any United Nations document is alarmist cant. Again quite the contrary: the 2010 Human Development Report is mainly optimistic about the developing world. It paints, in fact, a far more sanguine picture of most of the human family than is found in the mainstream media. When the United Nations says something depressing, coverage is always assured. Today, the United Nations says something hopeful – will the world pay notice?
“Overall, poor countries are catching up with rich countries” on nearly all central measures, the report finds.
Since 1970, income in the developing world has risen 184 percent (all money figures in this column are adjusted to 2010), versus a 126 percent income rise in the OECD nations in the same period. Literacy in the developing world has risen 61 percent since 1970. School enrollment and life expectancy have risen sharply in most developing nations. An overall Human Development Index, which weighs the leading indicators of life, is up 57 percent in the developing world since 1970, and 23 percent since 1990. (See page 28 of the report.)
Many other measures are encouraging. In 1970, just a third of nations had true democracy; today, the fraction is 60 percent. World literacy was 73 percent in 1990, is 84 percent now and continuing to climb. Half a century ago, the typical developing world person attended two years of school. Now it’s six years, and still rising. Most gaps between rich and poor nations are shrinking. For example, compared to 1970, Norwegians now live seven years longer – and Gambians live 16 years longer.
The big jumps in social progress are outside the West. The report’s top five “movers” – countries showing the best progress on the overall Human Development Index – are Oman, China, Nepal, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. (See page 29.)
Trends are generally positive, the report shows, though income inequality has risen in the majority of nations. Income inequality is a problem – but if living standards, education, longevity and freedom for typical people rise at the same time that income inequality rises, this seems to show that income inequality is not, in itself, incompatible with a better world.
Generally positive trends hardly mean, of course, that all is well: the report finds that a stunning 1.8 billion people live in “multidimensional poverty.” But considering the population explosion – there were three billion people on Earth in 1960, and are six billion now – the widely forecast Malthusian calamities haven’t happened. More than four billion people now enjoy mainly good living standards and social conditions – which exceeds the total number of human beings who were alive when I was a child.
The report concludes that rates of poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy are in steady decline, even as the human population booms with unprecedented speed. Paul Ehrlich and many other commentators expected the world to become dramatically worse in the current generation. Instead the world has become mostly better.
That most nations grow mostly better, and most typical people experience a better life (while all anyone anywhere does is complain), is a core theme of my 2004 book “The Progress Paradox” and my current book “Sonic Boom.” It sure is nice to have the United Nations Development Programme backing these contentions.
But will editorialists and international politicians take note – or continue, reflexively, to cry doomsday?
And if you’re wondering how the United Nations Development Programme scores nations on overall quality of life, here’s the ranking. Norway comes in as the world’s best place to live, Zimbabwe the world’s worst. The United States ranks number four, the United Kingdom tumbles all the way down to 26th, Estonia surely will celebrate finishing 34th, the old Warsaw Pact nations rank well ahead of Russia, China is 89th (but rising fast), India and Indonesia are in worse shape than I would have guessed, and the bottom of the ranking is dominated by Africa.
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