Could it be the world is getting better?

We had much to be glum about as we came to the end of 2021. We are brainwashed with bad news. “If it bleeds it leads”, say the wags in the newsroom. One plane crash or celebrity’s death or royal family transgressions or Russian military maneuvers are worth more airtime than news that, despite Covid,  we are winning the fight against early death.

Is the natural condition of mankind pessimism, whereas, in truth, we have good reason to be optimistic?

The World Health Organization has some telling facts. Over the last two decades infant deaths have fallen by a half. Measle deaths have fallen by three-quarters and both tuberculosis and maternal deaths by a half. AIDs-related illnesses have been cut by over a quarter. In 1960 one in five children died before the age of 5. Today it is one in 20 and falling. Nevertheless, 7.4 children under 14 have died because of preventable and treatable causes.

Developing countries have caught up far more quickly in health than in wealth. For instance, Vietnam has the same health as the US had in 1980 but at present the same income per head as the US had in 1920.

Despite the Great Recession of 2007-2009, poverty has plummeted. The Chinese government claimed last year that it had abolished poverty. In India a lot of progress has been made. Although most of that drop has happened in China and India, it has also happened to various degrees in most Third World countries. However, Covid has slowed, sometimes reversed, some of these gains. Even so sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest of the continents, appears to have avoided the worst of the disease.

Population growth is slowing. The number of children in the world today is the most there is likely to be. Hans Rosling of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute told the BBC, “We have entered the age of the ‘Peak Child’”.

Education is spreading rapidly for girls.  In Muslim Bangladesh there are as many girls in school as boys. In conservative Saudi Arabia there are more young women in university than men- and their exam results are better.

In 2022, doubtless there will be war in Somalia, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Yemen and perhaps Sudan, and on a reduced scale in Afghanistan and Syria. Small bands of Islamic militants will disrupt some West African countries and Mozambique. Of that we can be sure. But adding the populations of these countries together, war affects a tiny percentage of the world’s population.

There will probably be another year of “Cold Peace” between Russia and the West unless both sides can engineer a way out of the quite unnecessary Ukrainian imbroglio and find a way to work together- to nuclear disarm, to roll back the expansion of Nato, to reverse climate change and to pull the rug from under the Islamic State movement (IS). Only ignorance and prejudice keep the two superpowers apart. It should be possible for intelligent people to bridge the present gap in understanding.

The European Union has been hurt by Brexit but it continues to be the most peaceful, healthy and successful part of the globe.

The pace of action against malaria, other tropical diseases and global warming is out of step with what is necessary. But we know the solution to these three problems. At last we can say, that after years of propaganda and education by enthusiasts, a majority of the world’s people understand the basic issues and are prepared to support new initiatives.

There is no good reason why there shouldn’t be rapid progress in vaccine development now that scientists have shown what can be done if they are given money and incentives by governments.

Right after the ending of the Cold War in 1991 there was a surge in the growth of the number of states practicing democracy. But over the last 15 years the numbers have dropped. Nevertheless, if we look at the number of people who live under democracy rather than the quantity of states, the numbers look different. The countries which have become less democratic, excluding Russia and the US, are countries with small populations. Looked at this way the fall-off is not severe.

At the end of World War 2 there were less than ten democracies. Now it is commonplace. According to the US’s NGO, Freedom House, which measures the ups and downs of democracy and human rights, 45% of the world’s people are “free” and 30% “partly free”. (According to its latest reports, the US has dropped down the league table of the freest countries, partly because of the policies of ex-President Donald Trump and partly because of the increase of “big” money in elections, that distorts the desires of the majority.)

That leaves only 25% of the world’s people who live under unredeemed dictatorships. Most of that number is in China. Take China out of the equation then only a quite small number of people live under totally dictatorial regimes. Russia is an autocracy despite often being called a dictatorship. There are still a few newspapers, magazines, tv and radio stations that are essentially free. So are the internet and foreign broadcasts. If Russians want to know what is going on they can easily find out.  Dimitri Muratov, the editor of the daily, Novaya Gazeta, recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for upholding freedom in Russia. Determined journalists manage to keep themselves and their outlets above water.

Anti-immigrant political rhetoric and voting may be on an upswing in Europe, yet most people have responded to the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees with a degree of unexpected equanimity. There was a surge six years ago from war-torn Syria and parts of west Africa but the numbers have decreased as fast as they once climbed.

Unfortunately, negative media coverage of immigration and political exploitation of it continues. The politics of countries like France, Hungary, Poland, Denmark and Sweden is seriously affected by this scaremongering. But it is not, Europe-wide. In Spain, Italy, the UK, Germany, Finland, Portugal and Greece immigration is not a determining political issue. In the US it is not an issue in general elections.

In the US, since the days of Martin Luther King tremendous progress has been made in advancing the quality of black lives on every front- civil rights, health, employment and political. Barack Obama becoming president was a quite remarkable achievement.

It has long been intellectually fashionable to debunk the value of foreign aid. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that in most poor countries the great advances in medical care would not have been made without it. Take the program to fight AIDS in Africa initiated by President George W. Bush, head of a party that has long derided aid. It paid for the successful treatment of over 5 million people. Aid has been cut in the UK but most of the other rich countries have kept at it, even increased it. These days more and more of America’s richest men and women are donating large sums of money out of an altruistic commitment to help the poor get on their feet- and they are finding success.

Over the decades since the end of the Cold War war has become less frequent and less deadly. It is true that in the last few years, mainly because of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Myanmar and Afghanistan, the number of fatalities has shown an increase after years of decrease, but the world over the downward trend has continued. Today war is limited to only one relatively small corner of the world.

MIT professor, Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book “The Better Angels Of Our Nature”, brought to light a treasure trove of data proving that the world has become much more peaceful. Over the last 50 years, he wrote, deaths in war have fallen from an annual 300 per 100,000 people to less than 1 per 100,000.

In Pinker’s new book, “A Brief History of Equality”, to be published by Belknap in April, he writes of how the world has moved over the last 100 years, albeit fitfully, towards a more just distribution of income and assets.

International justice has also expanded its writ. There is now the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and before that international courts for deadly abuse in ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Although the former hasn’t gained the supporting votes of the US, Russia, India and China it has made a lot of progress in convicting war criminals. On quite a number of occasions, behind the scenes, the US has acted as if it was a member.

Even though the big picture is a good one it is true we can’t be as optimistic as when at the end of the Cold War Francis Fukuyama published his well-quoted essay arguing that the future would now lead to “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as a final form of human government”. He wasn’t entirely wrong, but he did not foresee the turn away from democracy in both Russia and America. The first is ruled by an autocracy. Half the voters in the second are supporting the organizing of the vote for one. Polls suggest that half of that second group are prepared to support their aims with the use of violence. As Professor Yasvha Mounk has written in his fine new book, “The People Vs Democracy”, “Donald Trump broke just about every basic rule of democratic politics”. A Republican Party-led uprising could be the consequence.

The on-going malign and worrying influence of ex-president Donald Trump, the consolidation of autocracy in Putin’s Russia and dictatorship in China, tensions in Ukraine, IS atrocities, setbacks in northeast and west Africa, the lack of nuclear disarmament and the spread of new variants of the Corona virus are important items of bad news but not as important as the good news.

We are outracing the Four Horsemen, extending the length of human life faster than pestilence, war, famine and death can take them. One reason for the drop in warfare is that democracies don’t go to war with each other.

At the onset of 2022 we need a return to perspective. Our destiny is not down. The world is a far better place than it was at the end of the Second World War.

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power has been an international foreign affairs columnist for over 40 years and has interviewed over 70 of of the world's most famous and influential presidents, prime ministers, and political and literary icons including Ignacio Lula Da Silva, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Willy Brandt, Julius Nyerere, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Paul McCartney, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eldridge Cleaver, Jimmy Carter, Olusegan Obasanjo, Georgio Arbatov, Dilma Rousseff, Olof Palme, Helmut Schmidt, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Jose Saramago, Ben Okri, Manmohan Singh, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barbara Ward, Valeria Rezende, Pranab Mukherjee, Ben Mkapa, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan, George Weah and Angela Davis. Many of these were full-page broadsheet interviews. For 17 years Jonathan Power wrote a weekly column on foreign affairs for the International Herald Tribune. He has also been a frequent guest columnist for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He has written eight books on foreign affairs and, in his early days as a journalist, made films for the BBC, one of which won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. Previous to his journalistic career, he worked on the staff of Martin Luther King. Jonathan has probably been printed more times in American newspapers than any other European. He is also listed in Who's Who.

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