I’m always amazed by how people respond to good news. The UN recently announced an update on its progress toward meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s). It certainly looks like good news to me. The number of people living in absolute poverty (less than $1.25 a day at PPP) has fallen from 46% in 1990 to 27% in 2005 on UN data. We’re seeing gains in almost all the things that we decided to measure as being important.
We may not meet all the MDG’s in the time horizon initially set out, but we’re gonna get pretty close. This is great news! The level of misery in the world has been dramatically reduced. There should be parties and news flashes and whatnot, but this has been pretty quiet.
There are at least a few reasons why we haven’t heard much about this.
The first place to start is to consider the nature of the media and what sells. Unfortunately good news doesn’t sell the same way as bad news does. Imagine how well a newspaper would sell if the banner headline read “Everything Great as Usual!”. Not going to make you stop and layout the $2 for a paper. Some good news stories do sell papers – the successful rescue of 33 Chilean miners after an incredible amount of time under ground is one obvious exception to the rule. But what would the photo be for less poverty in the world? Would such an abstract story sell papers or ad space? No sales = no headline.
Another reason for a lack of celebration actually caught me by surprise. When this news made its way through academic circles – it’s always a slow news day in academic circles – many people responded by dismissing the results. The main objection was that most of the improvement came from Brazil, India, and China and poverty is still a massive problem in Africa. While it is clearly true that there is still poverty in the world, this attitude isn’t entirely supported by evidence. Yes, some places in Africa haven’t made a lot of improvement, but others are among the highest performers. Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic and Guinea all make the top 10 in reduction of poverty. Hans Rosling has a great ted talk on the same point. http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_the_good_news_of_the_decade.html
There may also be an issue about how progress was generally made. We haven’t seen a massive global revolution against capitalism, yet. The progress generally hasn’t been made by wealthy countries interventions or aid or anything of the sort. Most of the gains have been made by economic growth that coincides with increased globalization and trade. Globalization and trade are seen by many active campaigners for the fight against poverty as the enemy. For poverty to be reduced while the enemy succeeds is no success in their eyes, thus no celebration.
Whatever the reason, it is a shame we aren’t celebrating the things that are getting better in the world. There billions of reasons why we should have a celebration. One for every person no longer living in abject poverty.