The Spectator

Joy to the world | 12 December 2013

The world's still getting better - here's the proof

Joy to the world | 12 December 2013
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Pessimism sells. It shifts books and newspapers, sends ratings soaring. It fills lecture halls, wins research grants, makes political careers. We are fed this constant diet of doom, predicting anything from meteorological Armageddon to a tyranny of austerity, and so it is little wonder that we tend to miss the bigger story. A cold, dispassionate look at the facts reveals that we are living in a golden era. and that, if you use objective measures, 2013 has been the best year in human history.

As a public service - and one which is rarely provided in broadcast or print - The Spectator will below provide evidence for these assertions. We can start from crude figures: $73.5 trillion, the world’s economic output this year. Never has so much wealth been generated — but, importantly, never has growth been shared more evenly. While the rich world is wallowing a mire of debt, the developing world is making incredible progress. The global inequality gap is narrowing - and thanks not to the edicts of governments, but to the co-operation of millions of people, rich and poor, through international trade. Or, as critics call this system, 'global capitalism'.

As a result goals that once seemed fantastical are now within reach: from the end of Aids to the end of famine. To understand the speed of this progress consider the  United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals,  drawn up in 2000. The plan then was to halve the number of people living on $1 a day by 2015. This target was reached five years early. This amazing achievement passed with almost no comment, perhaps because it had been achieved by the market rather than foreign aid. People, when free to trade with each other, are succeeding where decades of government schemes failed.

The 2015 UN Millennium Development Goal on undernourishment was hit seven years ago (right). Also, the goal Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 12.15.16to halve the number of people without access to drinking water by 2015 was achieved last year. The UN wanted to improve the lives of 100 million slum dwellers — with water supply, sanitation and better housing — by 2020. This target has been met ten years early (in fact, 200 million were helped by 2010, twice the target). There are still huge problems; it is true that 400 million children still live in poverty. But with a few more years of globalisation may end that. At the current trajectory, the World Bank’s target to all but eliminate poverty by 2030 looks like being achieved early. Most people alive now can hope to see a time when the concept of famine is consigned to history. (In fact, the United Nations now believes Africa could be only 12 years away from this extraordinary goal).

This is happening because the world is trading, and its people co-operating through trade, as never before. With the wealth comes better ways to protect crops, and ability to guard against (and recover from) natural disasters. The number of deaths due to natural disaster is a fraction of what it was a century ago; nature is no less vicious, but mankind is far better prepared.

China, now the world’s workshop, is now driving the planet's progress against hardship. Its embrace of market reform has reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty from 84 per cent three decades ago to 10 per cent now. Yes, China remains far poorer than the West, but the gap is closing fast, and in certain areas of development the Chinese are overtaking the West. We learnt this month that the poorest pupils in Shanghai (a city with more inhabitants than most European countries) are now better at maths than the richest in Britain.

In the space of a decade, Britain has gone from pitying China and handing it foreign aid to fearing it - and , as was the case recently, wondering how we can copy its education secrets.  In Asia and North Africa, primary school enrolment is now as high as it is in the rich world. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, two-thirds of children are in school - in 1990, it was barely half. Back then, literacy had been extended to only 75 per cent of adults. Now, it’s 83 per cent and rising fast.

Ah, say the critics, wealth is one thing. But how is it achieved? How many of these Asian exports are made by tiny hands? Global capitalism has long been associated, by its detractors, with child labour. But in fact the International Labour Organisation reports that child labour has fallen by a third over the past decade, and the number of children in hazardous work has more than halved. Every day in every way, the world grows richer, safer and smarter. All this, in spite of the world’s population growing at a rate which makes Malthusians shudder.

Extraordinary advances in medicine, and in the ability to produce affordable drugs for millions, is sending levels of life expectancy soaring in the poorest nations. The introduction of anti-retroviral drugs in Malawi, for example, has seen its Aids death toll fall from 92,400 ten years ago to under 46,000 now. This reflects a worldwide trend. Cambodia is on track to eliminate deaths from malaria by 2015, having halved infections over the course of this year. Malaria is one of the world's biggest killers - and, as the World Health Organisation recently confirmed, its death rate has almost halved since the turn of the century.

It would be a patronising error to ascribe all of this progress to western aid. That plays a significant role - but as countries become better off, they provide better care for their people. You won't find Britain, America or anywhere in Europe in the list of fastest-growing economies of 2013. But you will find Chile (4.4 per cent). Bangladesh (5.7 per cent), Rwanda (7.5 per cent) and Ghana (7.9 per cent) closing the gap with the rich world due to their main resource: the courage and character of their people. With this growth the infant mortality falls, life expectancy rises and poverty is that bit easier to escape.

Once, people would argue that the explosion of wealth and population that we’re seeing would induce a food crisis. In fact, the portion of mankind going hungry is at a record low. There has been no population crisis, because mankind has proven pretty clever at coming up with new ways to grow food.

But what about these new, middle-class Chinese and Indians buying cars and causing a mass shortage of oil? Again, the panic proved unfounded. We are instead in an era of hydrocarbon abundance, thanks to advances in fracking technology. It has helped America cut energy prices by two thirds and prepare for an era where it won't need oil imports from Arab tyrants, or anyone else. As for Britain, it emerged this year that there is enough shale gas in Lancashire alone to power the country for 50 years. This is possible because the rich world’s fossil fuel consumption is actually falling, even with the population increase, aviation boom and bigger, fatter cars. And why? Due to consumer demand for more efficient cars and factories - not government diktats. With hydrocarbons, as with so much else, we're doing more with less.

You are unlikely to hear this mentioned much in the press, donation-hungry aid agencies or by politicians. All tend to focus on problems - and rightly. There are all too many of them out there; the number of people uprooted due to conflict or persecution, for example, stands at an 18-year high. Human progress is also susceptible to sudden, calamitous reversals. But this year, things have been getting better faster than any rate in history. By small incremental improvements - in health, technology, wealth and trade - there has never been a better time to be born.

When the Queen gave a speech to the United Nations general assembly three years ago, she observed that the greatest achievements in her long reign had come about ‘not because of governments, committee resolutions, or central directives’ but ‘because millions of people around the world have wanted them’. Her Majesty was too polite to spell it out, but politicians follow the world, rather than lead it. Free trade and free markets have made this the best year ever — and stand to make 2014 better still.