Peer through the gloom and there are reasons for global optimism

Peer through the gloom and there are reasons for global optimism

There is a widespread feeling that the world is heading in a very worrying direction. Climate change threatens to disrupt economies, lives and ecosystems; the Syrian civil war has killed more than 500,000 people and prompted the largest refugee crisis in 50 years; and conflicts rage from Ukraine to South Sudan, Yemen to Myanmar and beyond. In January, Freedom House’s annual report found “that 2017 was the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom,” while youth unemployment has risen in many countries and, around the world, societies are struggling with the challenges created by economic, technological and social changes that disrupt communities and threaten identities.

There is ample reason for a gloomy outlook, but it is critically important not to lose sight of the positive developments taking place in our world. “By most objective measures of human well-being, the past three decades have been the best in history,” Kishore Mahbubani and Lawrence H. Summers wrote in an April 2016 article in Foreign Affairs magazine. Indeed, by many metrics, human beings have made startling progress in recent years.

There have been very impressive developments in terms of poverty reduction and middle-class growth. In 2000, the UN set a Millennium Development Goal of cutting the number of people in extreme poverty — living on less than $1.25 a day — in half by 2015, and the goal was achieved early in 2010. The World Bank estimates that “in 2013, 10.7 percent of the world’s population lived on less than $1.90 a day, compared to 12.4 percent in 2012. That’s down from 35 percent in 1990.” More people are rising into the middle classes around the world, especially in Asia. The Brookings Institution’s Homi Kharas wrote in 2017 that “at a global level, we are witnessing the most rapid expansion of the middle class the world has ever seen.”

There is ample reason for a gloomy outlook but it is important not to lose sight of the positive developments in our world.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

The UN has noted that the Human Development Index — an assessment that considers health, education and standard of living — has gone up significantly in the last 25 years in global terms. According to the World Health Organization, global life expectancy in 2015 was 71.4 years, which reflected an increase of five years between 2000 and 2015 — “the fastest increase since the 1960s.” The WHO also found that “between 1990 and 2015, maternal mortality worldwide dropped by about 44 percent.” Vaccines continue to diminish the prevalence of certain diseases, such as polio. The global adult literacy rate is now above 86 percent.

Despite news reports that highlight violence, the world today is, overall, safer than in the past. Harvard professor Steven Pinker has noted that “battle deaths” from wars have plummeted since the Second World War. While the Syrian conflict has sadly bumped it back up slightly, the rate in 2015 was 1.4 battle deaths per 100,000 people per year, compared to 300 during the Second World War. Pinker has also noted that homicide rates are down in Western countries and appear to have declined globally.

There are caveats to all these indicators — in many cases, some regions or certain groups of people have not shared in the global progress, and there are risks that could reverse positive trends. But, nonetheless, the overall picture is encouraging.

There is also progress in many areas that are harder to define and measure. Technological changes can be disruptive but are also improving many lives around the world. Mahbubani and Summers noted “the emergence of pragmatic problem-solving cultures in every region” of the world. In a recent article in The Atlantic magazine, journalist James Fallows argued that many Americans who feel deeply negative about the direction of their country are missing exciting ways in which people are improving their communities throughout the nation.

People often feel more negative about the state of the world or their country than they do about their own lives and local communities. For example, Gallup polls have found that Americans have far greater trust in their local and state governments than in the federal government.

Why do we tend to see global or national events so negatively, even when we are happy with the direction of our local communities? One reason, in much of the world, is the effect of the news media, which naturally emphasizes negative, shocking, violent events while underreporting positive developments.

Another factor is growing awareness due to modern technology. Today, many people can record what they see on cameras on their phones and share it on social media. In some cases, this means that people now see bad things that have been happening for a long time but were not visible to much of the world. Palestinians have used cameras to record and share their interactions with Israeli soldiers and settlers. In the US, video footage has helped raise awareness of continuing problems with violence against black Americans.

The problems facing today’s world are very real, and ignoring them would be foolish. At the same time, a constant diet of negative news about the world outside our own bubble is dangerous. It feeds into creating a negative image of “the other” — a sense that ominous things and people exist out there beyond our own spaces. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, feeding into populism, a zero-sum perspective on the world or a feeling that fighting is the only option. It can lead to fatalism: The sense that nothing can be done, so people do not even try to make things better.

Highlighting the good along with the bad is empowering. It reminds us that progress is possible and we can make the world a better place with effort, cooperation and a nuanced and informed understanding of what is actually happening around us.


  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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