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von Hans Dembowski

Ways in which the world has recently been getting better

The media have a well-known tendency to focus on bad news. Accordingly, things that go well often do not get much attention. Charles Kenny of the Washington-based Center for Global Development points out nine ways in which the world has been getting better recently.

Kenny is an optimist. A few years ago, he published a book with the title “Getting better: Why global development is succeeding—and how we can improve the world even more”. Essentially, Kenny focuses on long-term trends which, unlike short-term disasters, do not get enough media coverage and shape the general public's perception of the state of the world. Indeed, there have been positive developments on many fronts, ranging from health and education to employment and peaceful coexistence or environmental protection.

Last week, Kenny posted an essay on, elaborating on nine such trends. First of all, Kenny points out that the famine that was expected to affect 20 million people this year was averted by humanitarian action. Taking the 20th century as a yardstick, moreover, he argues that this decade has only seen comparatively few people die in war. He notes that natural disasters, though devastating, have claimed fewer lives, and that the spread of terrible diseases – including diphtheria, tetanus, polio – has been reduced dramatically. Life expectancies are rising in most countries, he writes. There has been progress in terms of women's and minorities' rights, and the number of people living on the purchasing power of $2 per head and day has been declining. At the same time, the reliance on renewable energies has been growing. Despite some backlashes, Kenny also sees progress in terms of countries becoming more democratic.

Obviously, all of Kenny's points deserve thorough discussion. One might argue, for example, that the full extent of famine in war-torn countries such as South Sudan and Yemen is impossible to assess, so the optimism that humanitarian assistance has solved the problems is probably exaggerated. On the other hand, it is true that humanitarian agencies managed to raise considerable funds and in order to support people in many countries threatened by famine. The warnings issued early last year helped to mobilise the global public and actually did make a difference. This is news that actually did not make headlines. On our website, Till Wahnbaeck of Welthungerhilfe, a humanitarian NGO, made the case.

Regarding natural disasters, it would make sense to point out that storms, droughts and floods have been becoming more frequent and more forceful due to climate change, and that things are set to get even worse. These facts, however, should not distract from Kenny's argument, that fewer people have been dying because of natural disasters.

All summed up, Kenny's essay should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, the trends he assesses are healthy and should be acknowledged.


Charles Kenny, 2018: Nine ways the world got better in 2017 -

Charles Kenny, 2011: Getting better: Why global development is succeeding—and how we can improve the world even more, New York: Basic Books



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