There has never been a better time to be alive

Published in the London Evening Standard (January 4th, 2011)

These are difficult days. Not just because for many people it is the first day back at work, but because Britons are fearful of the future.Instead of greeting the new year with hope and optimism, we are weighed down with pessimism. One survey of 24 nations found us to be among the gloomiest in the world. .

So this seems a good time to accentuate the positive, as the old song goes. Put aside for a moment those worries over rising prices, mortgages and unemployment and take a look at the world. What you will find is astonishing: quite simply, there has never been a better time to be alive in the history of mankind.

.In almost every corner of the earth, people are living longer and their lives are more prosperous, more pleasant and more peaceful.

Capitalism — a much-maligned beast in recent years — is coursing through the world, driving profound changes for the better, especially when allied to technological advances, urbanisation and good governance.

Too often, the developing world is seen in terms of torrid drama, with the four horsemen of the apocalypse galloping across television screens. Reporters seek out death and devastation, while charities reinforce stereotypes with images of dying children to boost donations.

This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa. Each year I travel there with a different bunch of musicians, some of whom have never visited the continent before. Each time, in places such as Ethiopia, Mali and Nigeria, there is astonishment at the gap between expectations and reality. The streets are full of bustle, not begging bowls.

The real story is a slow-burn sensation, one of ordinary people leading ordinary lives in extraordinary times. The past decade has seen unprecedented change. Wherever one looks, from life expectancy to literacy, from polio to poverty, from food production to the fighting of wars, the statistics are heading in the right direction. For every setback there are dozens of steps forward.

Of course, millions are still cursed by monstrous regimes, vile diseases and grinding starvation. Zimbabwe is plagued by all three, while the likes of North Korea and Somalia ensure that life is a daily misery for those unfortunate enough to be born in the wrong place. Climate change is a growing threat.

This lottery of birth means that every night an estimated 925 million people go to bed desperately hungry, a depressingly high figure.

But this is 98 million fewer than the previous year, despite a rising global population — and the proportion of undernourished people has more than halved since my own birth nearly half a century ago.

Better nutrition is helping the world become healthier. Infant mortality rates have more than halved during my lifetime. As a result, 10 million children born this year will live to celebrate their first birthday who would have died if rates remained the same as in the year I was born. And they can expect to live more than two years longer than if they arrived at the turn of this century, an impressive improvement in such a short time.

The Aids epidemic, which decreased life expectancy in some African states, is finally stabilising. Polio is disappearing, diphtheria is in decline and the numbers killed by measles is falling at a phenomenal rate — down 92 per cent this decade. We are on the brink of eradicating guinea worm disease, which would be only the second time mankind has wiped out a disease. And the world’s richest men are using their fortunes to ensure the eradication of malaria is next on the list.

The world is also becoming considerably wealthier. In his new book Getting Better, Charles Kenny, a development economist, shows the effects of living through this period of relentless growth, despite the “hiccup” of the financial crisis. The number of people living on less than a dollar a day has almost halved in 20 years, while average incomes are at their highest level in history, having risen a quarter since 2000.

The old clichés are outdated. Despite all those images of fly-covered African children, Kenny found the proportion of the population of sub-Saharan Africa affected by famine averaged less than three-tenths of one per cent between 1990 and 2005. Other studies have revealed that as a result of economic growth in populous nations such as India, Indonesia and Nigeria, three-quarters of the world’s poor now live in middle-income countries.

Meanwhile, the number of middle-class people is soaring. There are estimated to be close to half a billion people falling into such a classification, a figure expected to treble within 20 years. India alone will have almost 600 million. They will spend more on fine food and consumer goods; they also have smaller families and are more likely to share our values of free speech, democracy and religious pluralism.

This adds to evidence that the world is becoming wiser. More than four-fifths of people can now read and write and more girls attend school than ever before. And although the war in Afghanistan drags on, the number of armed conflicts has dropped since the end of the Cold War. Combat casualties fell 40 per cent between 2000 and 2008 — and more than sevenfold in sub-Saharan Africa.

There is endless debate over the causes of all this good news. I am sceptical about aid’s impact on development: instead I favour more equitable trade and immigration policies. But clearly the march of global capitalism is improving life for millions in its wake, with technology playing a key role. There are, after all, now more mobile phone subscribers in Africa than in north America.

Last year, the World Health Organisation announced a historic fact: more people now live in cities than rural areas. This is one more piece of good news, not just because I am a Londoner, but because cities are the best place to live for both environmental and economic reasons.

This city remains one of the world’s greatest but the new year arrives shrouded in pessimism. These are uncertain times. But for all our problems, there is room for optimism when humanity is getting healthier, wealthier and wiser.

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