Viewpoint: Five ways the world is doing better than you think

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Media caption,

Prof Hans Rosling shows how Asia moved out of extreme poverty

Many people don't know about the enormous progress most countries have made in recent decades - or maybe the media hasn't told them. But with the following five facts everyone can upgrade their world view.

1. Fast population growth is coming to an end

It's a largely untold story - gradually, steadily the demographic forces that drove the global population growth in the 20th Century have shifted. Fifty years ago the world average fertility rate - the number of babies born per woman - was five. Since then, this most important number in demography has dropped to 2.5 - something unprecedented in human history - and fertility is still trending downwards. It's all thanks to a powerful combination of female education, access to contraceptives and abortion, and increased child survival.

The demographic consequences are amazing. In the last decade the global total number of children aged 0-14 has levelled off at around two billion, and UN population experts predict that it is going to stay that way throughout this century. That's right: the amount of children in the world today is the most there will be! We have entered into the age of Peak Child! The population will continue to grow as the Peak Child generation grows up and grows old. So most probably three or four billion new adults will be added to the world population - but then in the second half of this century the fast growth of the world population will finally come to an end.

Image caption,
Peak child is here, and peak adult not far away

2. The "developed" and "developing" worlds have gone

Fifty years ago we had a divided world.

There were two types of countries - "developed" and "developing" - and they differed in almost every way. One type of country was rich and the other poor. One had small families, the other large families. One had long life expectancy, the other short. One was politically powerful, the other was politically weak. And between these two groups, in the middle, there was hardly anyone.

So much has changed, especially in the last decade, that the countries of the world today defy all attempts to classify them into only two groups. So many of the formerly "developing" group of countries have been catching up that the countries now form a continuum. From those nations at the top of the health and wealth league, like Norway and Singapore, to the poorest nations torn by civil war, like DR Congo and Somalia, and at every point in between, there are now countries right along the socio-economic spectrum. And most of the world's people live in the middle. Brazil, Mexico, China, Turkey, Thailand, and many countries like them, are now in most ways more similar to the best-off than the worst-off. Half the world's economy - and most of the world's economic growth - now lies outside Western Europe and North America.

3. People are much healthier

Fifty years ago, the average life expectancy in the world was 60 years. Today it's 70 years. What's more, that average of 60 years in the 1960s masked a huge gap between long lifespans in "developed" and short lifespans in "developing" countries.

But today's average of 70 years applies to the majority of people of the world. Most of the world's countries have caught up far more quickly in health than in wealth. For instance, Vietnam has the same health as the US had in 1980 but so far only the same income per person as the US had in 1880! Behind the increased lifespan lies an impressive drop in child mortality. Tragically, seven million of the 135 million children born each year still die before they reach five years old. But in 1960 one in five children died before the age of five. Today it's one in 20, and the rate is still falling. One common myth is that healthcare - by saving the lives of poor children - just leads to faster population growth. But paradoxically the opposite is true. Why? Because there is only ever demand for family planning when child mortality drops sufficiently. Before that happens, women keep on having babies. The fastest population growth rates today are in the poorest and most war-torn countries with the highest child mortality, like Afghanistan and DR Congo. Get the mortality rate down, and the demand for family planning goes up.

4. Girls are getting better education

The greatest change for girls and young women in the world today is probably more education. In the world as a whole, men aged between 25 and 34 have on average spent eight years at school - and women from the same age group are now just behind them, with an average of seven years' schooling. In fact, in some poorer countries such as Bangladesh, girls now attend primary and secondary school in the same numbers as boys. Of the 60 million children in the world who still don't even go to primary school, it's almost always because of their extreme poverty - they are needed by their families to work. Only about 10% of girls who can't go to school are stopped by cultural taboos.

The better education of girls is just a first step on the long road to gender equity. But sadly it is also changing the character of gender inequity. Violence against young women and restrictions on their rights to choose how to live their lives are now replacing lack of schooling as the main gender injustice.

5. The end of extreme poverty is in sight

What is "extreme poverty"? Economists define it as an income of less than $1.25 per day. In reality, it means that a family cannot be sure from one day to the next that they will have enough to eat. Children have to work instead of going to school. Children die from easily preventable causes such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria. And for women it means uncontrolled fertility and families of six or more children.

But the number of people in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank, has fallen from two billion in 1980 to just over one billion today. Though many people in the world still live on a very low income, six out of seven billion are now out of extreme poverty and this is a critical change. These families have fewer children, of whom the vast majority survive, get enough food and go to school. In fact, for the first time ever, the evidence suggests it is now possible for the last billion to also get out of the misery of extreme poverty in the next few decades. It will mainly be through their own hard work - but it will only happen if they receive, from their governments and from the world at large, the focused help they need to stay healthy, get educated and increase their productivity.

Don't Panic - The Truth About Population will be broadcast on BBC Two on Thursday 7 November at 21:00 GMT (23:20 GMT in Scotland)

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