In 2007 Hans Rosling, a teacher and scientist whose area of expertise is Global health gave a very insightful and inspiring Ted talk titled “New insights on poverty”. He presented graphs and statistics showing the unjust distribution of wealth; the relationship between GDP per capita and the infant mortality rates for different countries, and how we “got rich quick” at the expense of our environment, specifically our carbon dioxide emissions.
As expected, when comparing infant mortality to GDP per capita, countries like the UK and USA were at the upper end of the spectrum whilst Sub-Saharan Africa dominated the lower end of the spectrum with the lowest GDP per capita and highest infant mortality rate. However Rosling gave a different perspective on things by freezing the position of the other countries in the graph, and focusing on the USA and observing its positioning on the graph through the years, and by doing so, enabling us to compare the USA over time to other countries in 2007. By doing so, he was able to show us that the USA in 1915, during WW1 was as rich as India was in the year 2007. Interestingly however the US had a higher infant mortality rate. The trend continued however as the Philippines imitated India with its economy in 2007 equalling that of America in 1915, only it had a much lower infant mortality rate than the USA and in fact, in took the world’s leading superpower 42 years since 1915 for its health to be level with that of the Philippines in 2007.
These were some very interesting and thought-provoking facts as it brings to light the fact that we are both misled and unaware of the true social and economic state of these countries. These countries, and those similar, are being simply branded as “Middle Income Countries” whilst we are only aware of the few who have greatest economic and political power. Rosling then went on to describe the disparity within the major emerging national economies which is that they are far more advanced socially, with better education, healthcare, human resources and so on, than they are economically.
On the topic of lack of knowledge and awareness, Rosling went on to discuss Africa as an example and what he had concluded following 20 years of work there in the Sub-Saharan countries, talking to farmers living in the depths of poverty. He spoke of the different phases of poverty, being in it, getting out, then moving away- all of which can be seen happening in Africa especially the very latter thanks to slowly improving state education (and more young people with access to it) and basic healthcare. This is where the philistinism appears due to our lack of objectivity when judging other countries and their economies. We see Sub-Saharan Africa as a poverty stricken, disease ridden, corrupt and completely backwards group of nations who have failed to become more advanced. However this is not the case. Yes, there is some government corruption and a great deal of poverty yet, in the words of Mr Rosling, “In 50 years they’ve gone from a pre-Medieval situation to a very decent 100-year-ago Europe, with a functioning nation and state. I would say that sub-Saharan Africa has done best in the world during the last 50 years.”
African countries are just some of many who are slowly advancing through means of development, some of the most important include education and economic growth as this is what will help people break out of and move away from poverty. Then there are the goals, which differ from the means as, unlike most perceive, the goals include good healthcare, our environment and human rights as opposed to economic prosperity, which is one of the many, rather convenient and inevitable consequences of a country becoming evermore advanced and developed.
It is from this that the simple yet inspiring and empowering quote, “The seemingly impossible is possible” came. We must be objective when looking at the progress of a nation and appreciate how far they have come. This knowledge will allow us to help them in a way that is more effective and efficient as we will know what these communities lack and what is hindering them, but more importantly, it will give us a sense of hope for the future and help us in creating a better, more just world.
By Nada Aggour