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2019: “The Best Year Ever”

Decline in Extreme Poverty

Decline in persons living on less than $1.90 per day from 42 % in 1981 to 10 % in 2015. World Bank data.

I can’t imagine a more attention-grabbing headline than one published at the end of 2019, “This is the Best Year Ever”. Tempted mightily to despair over the course of political news in the U.S. and the UK in 2019, Nicholas Kristof’s report on the progress made last year in health, education and economic development worldwide could not be ignored.

The article (published in the New York Times on December 28) was subtitled “For Humanity Overall Life Just Keeps Getting Better”. To substantiate this bold claim, Kristof introduces data reflecting progress made by the world’s poorest people in the poorest nations with these words:
“Since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.”

Here is a selection from the data supplied by Kristov to support his claim:
• Every single day in recent years, another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity. Each day, more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time. And some 650,000 went online for the first time, every single day.

• As recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent.

• A half century ago, a majority of the world’s people had always been illiterate; now we are approaching 90 percent adult literacy.
The last statistic deserves to be highlighted because the increase in world literacy is largely due to recognition of the importance of educating women in sub Saharan Africa and other areas of the world where women have emerged from the confines of domestic life to play a much greater role in society. In recent decades women have led in organizing community projects to expand literacy education, clean water access, enhance agricultural development and other anti-poverty efforts. Education of women and women organizing new local and nation-wide community service programs have also contributed to significant declines in the birth rate in poor nations.

Major part played by women in organizing to fight poverty's effects is represented by Magdalena Gathoni, founder of Kenya Adult Learners' Association (KALA)

Magdalena Gathoni, founder of Kenya Adult Learner Association, receives UN literacy organizing award in 2017

Dramatic evidence for the correlation of women’s education levels and the birth rate is provided by Bangladesh. Once described “by Henry Kissinger as a ‘basket case’,” Kristof notes that now “its economy grows much faster than America’s and Bangladeshi women average just 2.1 births (down from 6.9 in 1973)”. We need not go so far as South Asia for evidence that higher levels of education of women bring significant reduction in the birth rate. The “total fertility rate” (TFR) in Mexico has fallen from 5.7 births per female to 2.2 TFR in recent years. This trend of fewer children birthed with more education of the parents, regardless of vast cultural differences, counters dire predictions of global overpopulation. Again and again figures have shown that more education, and more educational opportunity for women in particular, is the most effective birth control method.

Two trends will hamper further progress by humanity according to Kristof. He states in the article’s conclusion, “Climate change remains a huge threat to our globe, as does compassion fatigue in the rich world”. I would add to those two the much greater aid funding provided poor nations by the U.S. and other developed nations for weapons purchases and security training than for economic and social development. A recent study by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) concluded, “National security concerns have continued to drive U.S. assistance policy”. Our wars in the Middle East have demanded far greater expenditures than the expenditures for foreign aid in general. A highly disputed estimate by the Pentagon in early 2018 that the U.S. would spend 45 billion that year on the Afghan war alone (the estimate did not include disability claims and payments for injuries suffered by our soldiers) compares to the 35 billion dollars foreign aid budget passed by Congress for 2018.

Optimism with humanity’s progress toward eliminating extreme poverty and its effects must be tempered then by consideration of what would be possible should foreign aid be devoted primarily to development aid and not to combat and training for war. In countries of the Middle East, do the citizens associate the U.S. with aid for economic and social progress or with the perpetuation of conflict between inhabitants of that region?

In the next post we’ll look at some readers’ responses to the Nicholas Kristof article at