Mind the gap – seeing our world clearly

Reading Nick Kristof’s latest column, in which he points out that 96% of the world’s children now survive to adulthood, reminded me of the amazing work of the late Hans Rosling, who specialized in correcting our misconceptions about the world.

A physician who spent many years in rural Africa tracking a rare paralytic disease, he co-founded Médecins sans Frontièrs (Doctors without Borders) Sweden, wrote a textbook on global health, and initiated key international research collaborations while at the Karolinska Institute.

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Gapminder image

As a professor of global health there, he dispelled a whole series of myths students commonly held abouf the ‘developing’ world, pointing out that many countries in the Global South are on the same trajectory towards health and prosperity as the North followed, and many countries are moving twice as fast as the west did. Watch his amazing TED Talk from 2006 to get a flavour of his energizing, dramatic presentation style.

I used several of his energizing presentations in a class I taught at a Canadian university on international field work. He showed trends over the long term, transforming development statistics into moving bubbles and flowing curves that make global trends clear, intuitive and even playful. His legendary presentations usually attracted standing ovations.

Rosling developed the software through his nonprofit Gapminder, founded with his son and daughter-in-law. TED reported that the free software — which can be loaded with any data — was purchased by Google in March 2007, Rosling having met the Google founders at TED. While Hans Rosling passed away in February 2017, his son still hosts Gapminder.

The reason why I thought of Hans Rosling when I read Nick Kristof’s column is because Kristof was noting that historically, almost half of children died before reaching adulthood. But that has changed. “We happen to live in a transformational era in which 96 percent of the world’s children now survive until adulthood.”

That really is staggering, isn’t it? But we don’t often hear it because media, aid workers and advocates focus on the crises and “don’t do enough to illuminate the backdrop of gains in health, education and well-being,” Kristof says.

While many people think global poverty will always be with us, “in fact the share of the world’s people living in extreme poverty has plunged from 38% in 1990 to about 8% now. Historians may eventually look back and conclude that leaps in human well-being, health and child survival were the most important things happening in the world in the early 21st century.”

That is what Hans Rosling pointed out, in his usual inimical way, a long time ago.

If you like, you can test your assumptions against the facts. (I got 9 of 13.)