Swedes, chimps, and you and me on sustainable development

Hans Rosling shows how the child mortality rate declined at a phenomenal rate across the globe between 1964 and 2012.

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>>Authored by Sabina Rogers

Earlier this year at the World Economic Forum (WEF), Hans Rosling opened his presentation, “Sustainable Development: Demystifying the Facts,” with three questions for the audience about the state of global development (about extreme poverty, measles vaccination, and population in 2100). He was testing their knowledge in order to illustrate how preconceived ideas will do us wrong.

He had done this test before. Rosling conducted studies with Swedes, Americans, and chimps about the state of global development. The chimps were asked to choose a banana that is associated with 1 of 3 possible answers, and they got the answer correct 33 percent of the time. In essence, they were bound to be right 1 time in 3; the humans were not as lucky. Basically, according to his study, chimps in a zoo have a better chance of choosing the right answers at random to questions about the state of the world than the average Swede and American does.

It is detrimental when we underestimate the progress that has been made just in the last 15 years. In 1964 (the date he starts with his child mortality chart), the world was clearly divided into two worlds: the developing world with large families and high child mortality and the developed world with the opposite. Today, there really is just one world, with a few outlying countries, mainly in Africa.

It’s also a world of inequality within countries. Take India, for example. “If someone comes from outer space and wants to see the world,” says Rosling, “and [they] have only one day to visit, they should go to India. Because they can see everything in India: the most fantastic success [and] progress being made, but also remote, rural areas where still, extreme poverty is rampant — but decreasing.”

This is where the post-2015 agenda has to focus the world’s energy and money: the still marginalized, the remote and hard-to-reach areas. This is why we at the Microcredit Summit Campaign are championing six financial inclusion strategies (our “six pathways“) that we believe hold the greatest promise in helping to end extreme poverty at the frontiers — at the margins of society in economic, social, and geographic terms. The six pathways offer a means to reduce the cost of delivery (mobile money), help the poor build assets (cash transfers linked with savings), tackle the challenge of a weak health infrastructure, and more.

But, this isn’t just about practitioners and donors. With the launch of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, we are seeing a massive media campaign targeted at you and me. It is a media campaign designed to get people excited and believe in the possibility of achieving the SDGs. Each goal has been reworded to express greatly simplified concepts. No numbers. No percentage signs. Just simple framing: No poverty, no hunger, good health, and so on.

It is also is designed to put “we the people” in the driver’s seat of this “next generation” of development. This is good because we are going to need everyone behind this agenda to fund it and traditional “aid” funding will not suffice. Tax revenue must contribute to the estimated $172.5 trillion price tag (over 15 years). The MDGs cost $915 billion in total. That’s $114 billion per goal compared to more than $10 trillion per goal for our post-2015 agenda.

In an interview on NPR’s Goats and Soda blog, Paul O’Brien of Oxfam America said, “It’s not just about more aid and donors doing more. This is going to be about sustained political will by governments to use their own money to tax corporations more effectively and make sure the money from their natural resources goes to poverty reduction.” This is the same conclusion in Who Pays for Progress?, a report from RESULTS UK about how to finance healthcare in new middle income countries. And, we can only do this if we understand what Rosling is trying to show us with his charts: “We can make the world much better. The long-term trend is going in the right direction.”

I would add, don’t underestimate what a world united by a set of global goals can achieve.

Watch Hans Rosling’s presentation at the World Economic Forum

Here is Rosling’s first question for WEF attendees:

In the last 20 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has…? A. almost doubled, B. remained more or less the same, C. almost halved.

The answer was C (though the numbers of extreme poor may not have decreased in absolute terms). How many got it right? 61 percent of respondents from the WEF were right; in an online survey he conducted, 23 percent from Sweden and 5 percent from the US answered C.

How many of the world’s one-year-old children are vaccinated against measles? A. 2 in 10, B. 5 in 10, C. 8 in 10.

Again, the answer was C, and 23 percent of WEF got it, 8 percent of Swedes, and 17 percent of Americans.

How many children will there be in the world in 2100? A. almost 4 billion, B. 3 billion, C. 2 billion (with no increase from 2000).

26 percent of the WEF audience answered the correct answer, C, 11 percent of Swedes, and 7 percent of Americans. Rosling’s chimps surveyed answered correctly 33 percent of the time.

What does this mean? When you answer worse than random, it means that the problem is not lack of knowledge, the problem is that you carry preconceived ideas, which makes your score worse than chimps.

The whole point of this exercise queued up his presentation (starting at 6:33) on the state of child mortality between 1964 and 2012 (hint: the vast majority of countries are doing amazingly well). He showed how child mortality today in Bangladesh (8:52) is better than the state of child mortality in Italy in 1964 and that even the worst off families (women with absolutely no education) are, today, where the better-off and most-educated Bangladeshis were in 2001.

Hans Rosling shows why the concept of “developing countries” (those with less than US$12,000 per capita) doesn’t have much meaning anymore — for a happy reason. We have great reason to be optimistic about ending extreme poverty by 2030.

The main reason for optimism is the evidence of the past…the long term trend is going in the right direction.

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