There is a natural human bias toward bad news. The title of a 1998 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sums it up: “Negative Information Weighs More Heavily on the Brain.” Negative stimuli get our attention much more than positive stimuli — which makes evolutionary sense for survival. Nice things are enjoyable; bad things can be deadly, so focus on them. And given that, in the news media, attention equals money, we can see the commercial reason for a lack of headlines such as “Millions not going to bed hungry tonight.”
Frequently, however, the bad-news bias gives us a highly inaccurate picture of the world. For example, according to a 2013 survey, 67 percent of Americans think global poverty is on the rise, and 68 percent believe it is impossible to solve extreme poverty in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, starvation-level poverty has decreased by 80 percent since 1970, according to economists at Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The truth is that while there is plenty to worry about on any given day, the world is generally getting better. A few prominent voices are pointing this out. Take, for example, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who has said he believes that by 2035 there will be almost no poor countries in the world. And it’s not just income. In health, education, security and freedom, the world is improving, according to my Harvard colleague Steven Pinker in his best-selling 2018 book “Enlightenment Now.”
Fresh, comprehensive evidence of progress comes in the new Legatum Prosperity Index, based on data from 167 countries — with 99.4 percent of the world’s population — on 300 social and economic indicators of well-being. (I am a board member of the Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank focused on global poverty, but I was not involved in preparing the index.) Across those dimensions, from 2009 to 2019, 148 of the 167 countries have seen net progress — much of it dramatic, and especially so among the poorest countries in the world.
The natural tendency with an index is to look for the “best” country or region. According to the index’s scoring, Denmark and the other Nordic countries come out on top, while the best-scoring region as a whole is North America. However, the real differences between the wealthy countries are differences not captured in the index, because they correspond to personal preferences. For example, Denmark is the “best,” assuming one wants to live in a secular, homogeneous culture with high income redistribution. Some want that; others don’t. It is more good news that there are a lot of different “styles of prosperity” in the world today.
Greater insights from the report come from seeing the progress in the developing world. In the vast majority of countries, health, living conditions and education are advancing rapidly. Not long ago, the two most improved countries from 2009-2019, Myanmar and Togo, were considered by many to be lost causes. They have a long way to go but show nonetheless that progress is possible in a relatively short period of time.
Not all countries are improving, unfortunately, but here again there are important learning opportunities. In the past decade, 19 countries have deteriorated. The greatest declines came in Venezuela (the victim of incompetent and kleptocratic government), Syria and Yemen (which have suffered civil wars). In general, the index reveals that when countries fail to progress in the modern world, it is not due to region or any population-specific characteristics. No one is destined for poverty. The problem is generally war, tyranny and poor governance.
There is still a great deal of work to be done around the world, but the good news from the Prosperity Index and from people such as Gates and Pinker should be much more salient in our thinking. Bad news doesn’t just hold our attention; it also demobilizes us because, particularly when it concerns people far away, it suggests that disaster is inevitable, when in fact it is not. Hope — the belief that something can be done, and we can do it — inspires action. Bad news, especially in world poverty, often stimulates hopelessness and, thus, inaction.
The world is not getting worse; it is getting indisputably better for most countries and most people. Billions of our brothers and sisters are freer, healthier and more prosperous than they would ever have been in human history. We should be thankful for that this holiday season, and resolve to push even harder.
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