Millions of Children’s Lives, Simple Solutions

“In the category of stunning, heartening, woefully underreported good news: In 2000, an estimated 9.9 million children around the world died before age 5. In 2013, the figure was 6.3 million. That is 3.6 million fewer deaths, even as the world’s population increased by about 1 billion.”

This stat, from Michael Gerson’s article in the Washington Post, reflects the continuing avalanche of positive health trends of the last few decades. Gerson gives a shout out to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, an organization that supports vaccinations for some 60% of the world’s children. Gavi does what government programs try but usually fail to deliver–a successful program with low overhead that shuts down when the job is done. Gavi tapers off its subsidization of vaccines over time as local vaccination infrastructure scales up.

We all know how deep and detailed the reporting of the Ebola crisis was. (Now that it’s getting under control we hear much less.) But this much more important story–think of the thousands of children saved from death for every Ebola death–yet stories about vaccinations saving millions never make it to the front page.

Watching Progress Before Your Eyes!

While browsing TED Talks on my iPhone app I discovered the Swedish scientist Hans Rosling.

He and two colleagues have created Gapminder, a beautiful, informative, and elegant web platform for showing global development statistics. You must check this out as it shows how major indicators of development–health, GDP, infant mortality, etc.–change over time.

Now of course not all of the data sets point toward progress, but most do. The increase in CO2 over the decades is ominous and disturbing. But trends in most other areas leave much reason for hope.

Check it out!

Ehrlich’s Population Bomb Was a Dud…

…and Malthus was dead wrong.

As a child in the 70s, I remember watching TV specials with ominous graphs of population explosion. The screen would then cut to a circa 1975 shot of a loud, crowded, polluted New York City. Next a shot of a Biafra baby, then footage from the Vietnam War or the killing fields of Cambodia. Looking back, it’s no wonder that so many of my generation are depressed!

The most famous population doomsdayer was Paul Ehrlich, author of the famous and aptly titled book The Population Bomb. The alarmist tone and dire predictions can be summed up in this excerpt, taken from WikipediaThe battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…”

So what happened? Well, Ehrlich thought that agricultural production was near its limits, despite the fact that he was living in the midst of the Green Revolution. As it turned out, technological progress improved at a much faster clip than population increases.

Here’s how Bill and Melinda Gates explained it in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal:

Going back at least to Thomas Malthus in 1798, people have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can’t keep up with population growth. This kind of thinking has gotten the world in a lot of trouble. Anxiety about the size of the world population has a dangerous tendency to override concern for the human beings who make up that population.

Letting children die now so they don’t starve later isn’t just heartless. It also doesn’t work, thank goodness.

It may be counterintuitive, but the countries with the most death have among the fastest-growing populations in the world. This is because the women in these countries tend to have the most births too.

When more children survive, parents decide to have smaller families. Consider Thailand. Around 1960, child mortality started going down. Then around 1970, after the government invested in a strong family planning program, birthrates started to drop. In the course of just two decades, Thai women went from having six children on average to having just two. Today, child mortality in Thailand is almost as low as it is in the U.S., and Thai women have an average of 1.6 children. This pattern of falling death rates followed by falling birthrates applies for the vast majority the world.

Saving lives doesn’t lead to overpopulation. Just the opposite. Creating societies where people enjoy basic health, relative prosperity, fundamental equality and access to contraceptives is the only way to a sustainable world.

Three Myths

Source: Wall Street Journal

“By almost any measure, the world is better off now than it has ever been before.” But what does Bill Gates know? My friend Piers Bocock shared a story with me in today’s WSJ. In it Bill and Melinda Gates punch more holes in the archaic belief that funding development is throwing good money after bad. I used to believe this…because in many respects it was true! In the Cold War foreign “development” aid was meant to keep anti-communist dictators on our side. But now there’s a new development paradigm. Gates-style megaphilanthropists + globalization + ubiquitous, hand-held computing/telecommunications + rising education = the rapid and sustained development of nearly every poor country on the planet.

2013: The Best Year Ever?

If I were to tell you that 2013 was the best year ever, would you believe me? Most people would think it a sick joke, maybe pornographic. What great event happened in 2013?

In this blog I will often point to “smaller” indicators that point to brighter things. In 2013, there was no Battle of Marathon, Emancipation Proclamation, or Stalingrad–no event that changed the course of history for the better. However, many seemingly unrelated trends “got better” as they have in previous years. The following article from goes into five of them: mortality, poverty, war, violent crime and discrimination.

Now if you asked people on the street “Do you think that rates of death, poverty, violence and discrimination are all trending down?” do you think they’ll agree? Most would not, I think.

One theory why is that crime is reported more and more frequently and thoroughly. And since everyone has a camera in his pocket now, many crimes and most catastrophes get filmed and photographed. We see more bad things on TV and computer screens, even as they are decreasing.