Wednesday, 26 February 2014

50 Reasons Why the World is Getting Better

Firstly, a disclaimer.  As a white, middle-class male, living in one of the richest countries in the world, I certainly have a great personal fortune for education, health and employment, unlike many billions around the world.  This post is not intended to dismiss very legitimate problems that continue to exist around the world, in terms of poverty, war, discrimination and the environment.

What's this post about?

I believe that many problems can be solved when the mind is engaged in positive thinking, and in the power of optimism to overcome adversity.

I believe that if we hear and read more about the incredible successes and good news stories of the past two decades, we can better appreciate the enormous strides that have been taken, by individuals, by organisations, by businesses, by governments, and by humanity as a whole. 

And I believe that the best way to encourage people and governments to donate their time and money to worthwhile causes, particularly those involving Aid and International Development, is to highlight how much progress has been made.  If we have previously succeeded, we as humans are programmed to more likely contribute towards potential future successes.  We are at the precipice of ending poverty, within our lifetimes, and we need to ensure the job gets done.

As such, I've decided to list 50 (un-ordered) Reasons Why the World is Getting Better, based on achievements made in the past 21 years, since my birth in 1992.

I genuinely believe you will be surprised by some of humanity's greatest achievements.  Please enjoy.

For a summary of the list, click here

The Full List:

1. The Internet
What is to be said?  It is connecting, networking, tutoring, assisting billions around the world.  Not just in the developed world (where percentage is 77 per cent), but also growing rapidly in the developing world (where percentage is 31 per cent and climbing).
In particular, this century has seen a mind-boggling increase in internet application, connection and usage.

2. Google and Wikipedia
The fountains of (seemingly) all knowledge, about everything.  As a 21st century student, it's hard to imagine academic pursuits without both of these incredible tools, such is the pervasiveness of their presence within our day to day lives.  In just moments, one can be transformed by new knowledge, can develop a new area of interest, or can simple arm themselves with facts about the world as we know it.

3. Extreme poverty halved
The first Millennium Development Goal included the aim of halving those living "in extreme poverty" (i.e. income of less than $1.25 per day), from the 1990 number, by 2015.  In fact, this was achieved by 2010, a whole five years early.  Now, 22% of people live in extreme poverty, down from 47% in 1990.

4. Facebook, Twitter and Skype
At no point in human history has the world been so easily connected.  Air travel meant that you could be in one country today, and the other side of the world tomorrow.
But Facebook, Twitter and Skype allow communication and cultural immersion within seconds, and/or in real time.  They are connecting people like never before.  And they're all free!

5. YouTube
Similar to Google and Wikipedia, one seemingly simple idea has become the launchpad for an incredible amount of creativity.  100 hours of video are uploaded every minute, and now essentially anything can be found.  It has revolutionised education (eg. Khan Academy), popular entertainment (music, film, TV) and allowed archiving of significant moments in history, such as these.

6. Primary school education up to over 90% worldwide
As part of Millennium Development Goal #2, primary school enrolment rates have risen across the world, reaching 90% in the developing and 97% in the developed world, in 2011.  Impressive rises have been seen in Sub-Saharan Africa (53% to 77%, from 1990 to 2011), Southern Asia (74% to 93%) and Northern Africa (80% to 97%).

7. Huge Drop in Child Death
Since 1990, there has been a 47% drop in deaths amongst children under the age of 5, through a range of improvements in medicine, economics, education, vaccination rates, social and political development.

8. Access to Water and Sanitation - 2 billion more people
Since 1990, an extra 2.1 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water, and an extra 1.9 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation.  This is helping to improve living conditions, support health and education programmes, reducing diarrhoeal and other infections, and so on.

9. Polio eradication (nearly there)
When I was born (in 1992), there were almost an estimated 100-150 thousand cases of Polio each year.  In 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was commenced, bringing together the WHO, Rotary International, UNICEF and the US CDC.  From 1988 to 1992, there had already been significant progress, down from around 350,000 cases per year.
But since 1992, we have seen polio cases fall and fall and fall.  There are now just three countries in which polio remains endemic: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.  As of January 2014, India has been official removed from that list, a wonderful achievement on its own.  But with just a few hundred cases left (a drop of over 99%), the eradication effort has been incredibly successful, and is something for humanity to be very proud of.

10. Approaching gender parity in education
Since 1990, great strides have been made in every region of the world, to improve education gender parity (defined as girls' school enrolment ratio in relation to boys' enrolment ratio, with a score of 0.97 to 1.03 deemed acceptable) in primary, secondary and tertiary.  And whilst there remains significant disparities in many nations, overall, parity has nearly been achieved in all levels of education: primary has risen from 0.86 to 0.97; secondary 0.76 to 0.96; tertiary 0.68 to 0.98.  As such, girls and women are now overall on par with their male counterparts, when it comes to educational enrolment.

11. Literacy rates on the rise
Worldwide, adult literacy rates have gone past 80%, to reach 84.1% in 2010.  Amongst young people, that number is now 89%.  There is a gender gap, with male rates at 88.6% and females 79.7%.  However, rates in both sexes are improving, towards achieving a goal of 100% literacy.

12. The End of Apartheid in South Africa
Following years of negotiation, the horrendous South African policies of Apartheid were finally ended in the early to mid 1990s.  These were followed by elections (1994), and South Africa remains a strong democracy and economy today.

13. The inspiration of Nelson Mandela
Following his release from prison, and the ending of Apartheid, Mandela served as South African President from 1994-1999.  However, it is his legacy, of before, during and after his Presidency, that has served of greatest benefit to South Africans, and to humanity as a whole.  His incredible determination, passion, humanity and spirit of forgiveness has served as enormous inspiration for those of all walks of life.  His memory will live on.

14. Tuberculosis: more than 20 million deaths averted in ~15 years.
A range of programmes and measures have helped to dramatically cut down on the burden of Tuberculosis worldwide.  Whilst TB continues to kill 1.4 million people per year, efforts to improve medications, access to medical care, and living standards have helped successfully treat around 50 million TB patients between 1995 and 2011.  This has helped avert around 20 million deaths in that time, a phenomenal figure.

15. Malaria: more than one million deaths averted in 10 years.
Between 2000 and 2010, deaths due to Malaria infection fell by over 25 per cent worldwide.  This drop has been estimated to have saved approximately 1.1 million lives, over that single decade.  This has been achieved through a combination of better prevention (mosquito nets, insecticides, wearing long clothes) and treatment.

16. Aung San Suu Kyi inspiring generations of Burmese and those worldwide
A somewhat lesser known, but perhaps equally influential political leader, is Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi.  From 1960 until 2011, Burma was led by a military junta.  The first democratic election of that era was held in 1990, after the demands of the people were heard.  Suu Kyi's party won convincingly, and she was to become the country's leader.  However she was then placed under House Arrest, and was arrested several further times, experiencing 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010 (her latest release) under House Arrest.  She is now again party leader, and hoping to win the 2015 election, the first election of the post-junta era.

17. 35% decrease in hunger in the developing regions
Over the past 20 years, the proportion of "undernourished"/"hungry" people in developing regions, has fallen from 23.2 to 14.9 per cent, a drop of over 35%.  There is still work to be done, but this is a significant fall in a relatively short space of time.  Hunger is another crucial cog which prevents education, health, employment and economic development from taking place.

18. Malala Yousafzai
You have probably heard the story of how a Pakistani teenager who strongly advocated for education rights for women and girls, was shot in an attempted assassination by the Taliban, in 2012.  Previously, she had been a BBC blogger, and the subject of a New York Times documentary.  But it was the senseless, violent Taliban attack that catapulted her to worldwide recognition.  Her activism has seen her nominated for any number of awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize.  She is an extremely eloquent speaker, an author, and an inspiration for people all race, religion, gender and belief.

19. Measles vaccination rates, and deaths avoided
Between 2000 and 2011, measles vaccine rates rose from 72% to 84%.  This has seen the avoidance of an estimated 10.7 million deaths worldwide, with measles deaths falling from around 548 thousand in 2000, to around 158 thousand in 2011.

20. OK Computer by Radiohead
Simply my favourite album of all time, and regarded by many as the Best ever, Radiohead's OK Computer was released in 1997, firing a warning shot as to the potential implications of a technology-drenched world, as well as providing comment on social and emotional isolation, the modern world, and life as a whole.  Disregarding all this, it is still an incredible album, and the world is a better place for its existence.

21. Pixar
Up to the mid-1990's, there had been many great animated films.  But when Pixar entered the game in 1995, with the amazing Toy Story, the landscape was forever changed.  Since then, the Pixar studio has produced hit after hit, including Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Ratatouille, Up, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc., Toy Story 2 and 3.  For both children and adults alike, the Pixar collection is an unbelievable set of films that will stand the test of time.

22. Shakespeare translated into dozens of languages
Probably the world's greatest playwright, boasting a collection featuring a dizzying number of classics, including Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Henry V, Macbeth, Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard III, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew (and the list goes on).  His (or are they his? or are they from a group of writers?) works have been translated into some 80 languages, for the benefit, learning and literary love of billions around the world.

23. Same-sex marriage in (almost) every continent
With recent passage of same-sex marriage legislation in Brazil, France, Uruguay and New Zealand, in 2013, the number of countries with marriage equality rose to 15.  They were added to by England & Wales, and then Scotland, both of whose laws come into effect in 2014.  There is now legal same-sex marriage in Europe, South America, North America, and Africa.  Only Asia and Australia remain as continents without marriage equality.  But for how much longer?

24. First African-American U.S. President
Yes, we can.  In 2008, and again in 2012.

25. The Arab Spring
Since late 2010, there has been an unprecedented, revolutionary wave of civil uprising, through the Arab world.  Several countries have seen widespread demonstrations, protests and civil wars, including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Jordan, but featuring many, many more.  Some populations have been able to achieve democracy and other political improvements faster than their neighbours, and many in the region remain in a continuing battle for victory (not least of which are the millions suffering in the Syrian Civil War).  Despite this, the Arab Spring has led to significant numerous positive outcomes for those in the Arab world, and for the world-at-large, and has been an awe-inspiring development to behold.

26. MP3 players
In the past 20 years, the world has developed portable music players (iPod, Zune, Sansa etc.), become obsessed by them, and then largely seen their evolution and absorption into the design of most/all smartphones.  But in the meantime, the portable MP3 player has led to a boom in personal music listening, allowing the individual greater flexibility and power over their listening experience, turning it into a truly unique and personal pursuit.

27. Maternal deaths - nearly 50% drop from 1990 to 2010
Deaths to women during (and just after) childbirth have been a significant burden of disease worldwide over many centuries.  These deaths affect not only those women, but also entire families and communities, of whom those women are critical figures.  Between 1990 and 2010, the rate of maternal death has fallen from 400 per 100,000 births, to 210 per 100,000 births, a decline of almost 50%  The Millennium Development Goals have demanded loftier targets, aiming for 75% reduction by 2015, and whilst this looks unlikely, there has still been a significant cut in the maternal death rate, and this is something to applaud.

28. Growth of Democracy around the world
Over the past few decades, many nations have become democracies.  Sometimes this process has been simpler, sometimes this process has been challenging, but overall, around half the world now lives in a democracy.  With the Arab Spring (#25), and similar development in other nations, we can look forward to seeing that number rise in coming years.

29. HIV (Part 1): New and Improved Treatments, and Life Expectancy
Before 1987, there existed no proper treatment for HIV infection.  Even once medications were developed, they didn't commence widespread use until the mid to late 1990s.  But even then, there were millions of affected individuals (particularly in poorer nations) had minimal access to these.  In the past decade or so, there has been an explosion in treatment numbers, from well below 1 million in 2002, to over 8 million by end 2011, and then 9.7 million in end 2012.

Meanwhile, in the developed world, longer-term access and use of HIV medication means that the average life expectancy of HIV-positive people in Canada and the USA is ALMOST the same as the general population.

30. HIV (Part 2): A vaccine?
Whilst HIV-positive patients are more and more receiving treatment, and living longer than every before, we still want to find a preventative vaccine, to stop people getting infected in the first place!  Over the past 20 years, much effort has been put into finding an HIV vaccine, and it looks like we might almost be there.  The not-for-profit Immunity Project is pledging to provide the vaccine free of charge, once it has been fully developed and tested (hopefully by around 2016).  This project has been the combination of humanitarian and public health benevolence and inspiration, the joys of crowd funding, and of science and medicine working for the betterment of humankind.

31. Contraception quality, diversity and use
There has been a significant increase in contraception options available for women and men alike, over the past two decades.  In 1992, Depo-Provera (injection) was first sold; followed by the female condom (1993), polyurethane (non-latex) condom (1994), Plan B (emergency contraception) (1999), Mirena (hormonal IUD) (2000), Vaginal Ring (2001) and Implanon (implant) (2006).  This is not to mention the improvement in quality and effectiveness of these, and existing contraception options.

Also, there is now around 62% of married women in developing regions who use some form of contraception.  This number is heartening, and is rising.

32. Fertility rate down to just 2.5
With economic development, and improvements in health and education, we have seen a sharp decline in fertility rates (i.e. total births per woman).  How much has it fallen?  From  5.02 in the early 1960s, to 3.04 in the early 1990s, and in the past 20 years has fallen further still, to just 2.50

This means that population growth in the 0-18 years age group is low, and will fall to zero (or negative) in the coming decades.  This is beneficial for further economic growth, sustainable employment, long-term tax revenue to pay for public services, and for the world's resources and environment.

33. Mars exploration
Launched in November 2011, and landing safely in August 2012, was the Curiosity rover, the first NASA mission rover to successfully land on the surface of Mars.  It is carrying images of the Mars surface directly back to Earth, for the first time ever, and allowing NASA to collect large scale information about Mars in its current, and previous forms.  In essence, it hopes to determine if Mars could have ever supported life, but also to collect information about water, climate, geology and surface radiation.

34. Diversity of media
With the advent of the internet, blogging and Twitter in particular, there has been an explosion in sources providing news every day.  An event that previously would have had an "Exclusive" or "Official" outlet, is now simultaneously commented on by thousands of Twitter users, and the sheer number of professional outlets has also increased exponentially.  This is providing better competition, and enhancing the news experience for the average person, who can now more easily stay in touch at all times, from any where. 

35. Satire
Whilst satire has been around for longer than 20 years, it has seen somewhat of a boom in recent years.  Perhaps the best known is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which then spawned The Colbert Report.  More locally, in Australia, there have been the various shows made by the Chaser, including CNNN, War on Everything, Hamster Wheel and so on.  Internationally there has also been the essential work of Egypt's Bassem Youssef, a Surgeon turned TV satire host who is regarded as a highly influential current-day figure, taking the Middle Eastern political landscape by storm with his open criticisms, especially of former Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi.
36. Iran entering into a peaceful, cooperative era
It was not long ago that an nuclear Iran was considered an international danger.  Now, after 2013 saw the election of Hassan Rouhani, the country (under its new leadership) has moved towards mending previously strained ties with the international community.  This may usher in a new era of improved international diplomacy, particularly between the Middle East and the Western world.

37. Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea (Bradley) Manning
Are they heroes?  Are they traitors?  History will prove to be the judge.  But for now, it is widely accepted that all of these figures/organisations have provided an important insight into the inner workings of our national bodies, and the hidden undertakings of the armed forces, security agencies, and of the government as a whole (in terms of secret international negotiations).  They bring these undertakings into the open, for the people to judge.

38. Hans Rosling and the Gapminder Foundation
Founded in 2005, the Gapminder Foundation seeks to clean up the myths and "ignorance" held by the general world population, through the use of interactive statistical software, and the enthusiasm of their Co-Founder and Chairman, Hans Rosling.  Their ignorance surveys demonstrate the severe lack of knowledge about key developments in the fight against poverty, for example that the world literacy rate is 80%, world life expectancy is now 70 years, world measles vaccination rate exceeds 80% and so on.  They present videos, more videos, films/seminars and TED talks all of which present crucial stats in a fun, interactive manner.

39. Female representation
Between 2000 and 2013, the average proportion of women in Parliaments around the world rose from 14% to 21%, and is expected to rise further in coming years.  In that time, we have seen the election of the first female Australian Prime Minister, first two female New Zealand Prime Ministers, and the first female Chancellor of Germany.

40. Science on TV
There has been an explosion in TV, radio and online Science programming, with engaging, highly intelligent presenters such as Professor Brian Cox, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, and Dr Adam Rutherford rising to prominence.  They present Science in an inviting, interesting and informative manner, helping to improve the scientific literacy of the population-at-large.

41. Slum dwelling rates falling
As countries health, education, economic and gender equality levels improve, so the proportion of people living in slums falls.  Between 2000 and 2010, the proportion of "slum dwellers" in developing regions has fallen from 39 to 33 per cent. Additionally, 200+ million gained access to improve sanitation, water and living spaces, far exceeding the MDG7 target of 100 million.

42. Debt servicing has dropped
A major barrier to further economic development (and a major contributor to economic vulnerability), including the provision of public services that the developed world now take for granted, is the need for developing nations to fund interest on past debts they have accrued.  Since 2000, "debt service to export ratio" (i.e. payments made per dollar earned through exporting) has fallen dramatically, from 11.9% in 2000, to just 3.1% in 2011, thanks to better management, improved trade and lower tariffs worldwide.

43. A golden era for Television
The Simpsons (ok, it started just before 1992, but never mind!).  Seinfeld.  South Park.  The Sopranos.  Friends.  The West Wing.  The Wire.  Breaking Bad.  The X Files.  The Office.  Buffy.  Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Law & Order.  Mad Men.  And so on the list goes (bearing in mind this is purely a list of English-speaking,.  The past 20 years have seen a golden revival in television.

44. Mental health awareness
Progress remains slow, and stigma remains significant, even in the most wealthy and highly-educated nations of the world, but awareness and acceptance of mental illness is rising around the world.  Greater research, better knowledge, improved care, and sustained public campaigns have helped push mental health (and its devastating impacts) into the public eye, and improve the lives of many.

45. The rise of the Public-Private Partnership (PPP)
PPPs are partnerships between a government/public body, and a/several private sector company(ies).   They have grown significantly in prominence since they first started to appear in the early 1990s.  Since then, PPPs have assumed many important roles, including a major role in the fight against poverty worldwide.  PPPs such as The Global Fund and the GAVI Alliance have dedicated themselves to improving treatment and care of AIDS, TB and Malaria, as well as improving immunisation rates around the world.  And they have succeeded.  Along with hugely important private foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, these organisations are helping to achieve many of the other "50 reasons".

46. 3D Printing
What is 3D Printing? Essentially, create a computerised 3D model (1); provide the printer with powder (of essentially any material) (2); wait and watch as a real-life, 3D version is created, in a matter of hours.  With the potential to revolutionise medicine (new face, anyone?), automotives, aerospace, engineering, construction, architecture and many other fields, the world is getting appropriately excited by the prospect of widespread 3D printing.  Another practical application: building low-cost housing, in 24 hours or less, to benefit billions worldwide with sub-standard shelter, and to assist in disaster and emergency response.  Amazing.

47. Harry Potter
The book series that has inspired a generation to read.  The J.K. Rowling fantasy novel series can be found on almost any household bookshelf in the Western world, and worldwide, the books have sold around 450 to 500 million copies (in 67 languages).  The bespectacled teenage wizard and his companions have become part of the human experience for children and adults alike, and will continue to inspire and fascinate for decades to come.

48. Action on Climate Change
The "greatest challenge of our time".  The "biggest global health threat of the 21st century".  Whatever you call it, Climate Change is an enormous, and growing problem, that the world as a whole needs to tackle.  And despite significant indecision and disagreement at various Summits, leading to disappointing outcomes (Copenhagen, Durban take a bow), there has been greater progress over time, including a Chinese emissions trading scheme, Indian carbon price on coal, a US/China agreement, an Australian carbon price, as well as various others worldwide.  Let us hope this momentum continues.

49. The Global Economy
Despite the Global Financial Crisis, and the ongoing effects felt worldwide, there has been a significant improvement in economic growth and activity, in the vast majority of nations worldwide.  This has helped hundreds of millions (billions?) to gain better employment, greater income and wealth and greater economic prosperity.

50. Mobile/Cell phones
Another truly staggering invention of modern times, the mobile/cell phone.  In the 20 years leading up to 1990, the first hand-held phones were developed and sold.  At that point, there were just 12 million phones in the world, with more than half in the US, UK and Japan.  In the two decades since, there has been a utter explosion in usage.  By end 2013, there were around 6.8 BILLION subscriptions, equating to a "global penetration" of 96 per cent, including 89 per cent in developing nations.  For all the myriad of reasons we love mobile phones, they help billions worldwide in essential ways: the economic development of farmers (and here), transformation of health care, business enhancement, education and so many more.

The phone is a symbol of modern technology serving both productive and leisure purposes, helping to improve the lives of billions around the world.

The mobile/cell phone and the internet (#1 on this list) serve as bookmarks for the rest of this list, as perhaps the two most prominent examples of human ingenuity and revolutionary technology that the world has seen in recent times.  Almost inconceivable just 20 years ago, the internet and mobile phones have transformed human livelihoods, and have assisted many of the improvements seen in that time.

Overall, I have set out to summarise the huge number of developments that the world has seen, in my lifetime.  I have tried to make the case for a positive reflection of the past 21 years, and a positive outlook for the years to come.  There is most certainly a lot of misunderstanding, particularly around stats like worldwide literacy rates (#11), life expectancy (#38), fertility rates (#32) and extreme poverty (#3).  I hope that this list (and its associated links) helps to reverse some of these misconceptions, and contribute to a more informed public discussion about the world as it was, as it is, and as it will be.

A very big thank you to contributors and editors of the list, including: Devaki Wallooppillai, Japleen Kaur Bhatia, Darcy Rowe, Oscar Morlet and Kasun Jayasekera.  And to the United Nations for their outstanding Millennium Development Goals Report 2013, which I have referenced extensively in this list.

Finally, thank you for reading.  I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you gained some new knowledge, and a more positive outlook on the world!

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