The world’s progress brings new challenges

Preserving peaceful relations in an era of rapid shifts in relative power is tough

Martin Wolf

In the past half century, humanity has made extraordinary progress. This is unquestionable.

This consists of more than higher incomes. It consists also of longer and better lives. We know this has happened. We also know why. But achievements bring new challenges. These are no exception.

In the early 1970s, the average woman produced just under five children. Many prophets of doom warned of unmanageable population explosion. Today, the global fertility rate is down to 2.4. In China, it is well below replacement level. In Brazil, too, where the Catholic Church was deemed an overwhelming obstacle to birth control, it is also below replacement level. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only big region where fertility rates remain high. (See charts.)

Chart showing declining global fertility rates

Why are families so much smaller? It is partly because wealthier people want fewer and better-educated children. But perhaps still more it is because their children survive. In 1960, 246 out of every 1,000 Indian children died before the age of five. By 2016, this was 43. In Brazil, the child mortality rate has fallen from 171 in 1960 to 15 in 2016. Even in rich Japan, it has fallen from 40 in 1960 (today’s world average) to three. We all love our children. So think what this transformation means to happiness.

Globally, life expectancy has jumped from 53 years in 1960 to 72 in 2016. China’s life expectancy is now 76, the same as Japan’s in 1977. Brazil’s is now the same as China’s. India’s is 69. Even Nigeria's life expectancy has risen from 37 in 1960 to 53. Being very old may not be much fun. Yet few regret a long life.

Chart showing declining child mortality rates

Then there is extreme poverty. That is currently measured by the World Bank as an income of below $1.90 a day (at 2011 purchasing power parity). This is what the late Hans Rosling, the Swedish doctor and statistician who founded the marvellous data animation website,, views as the lowest of the four “levels” of current material existence. In 1800, almost all people lived in such poverty. As recently as 1980, 42 per cent of humanity still lived at this level. By 2013, this was down to 11 per cent. In China, the rate fell from 67 per cent in 1990 to 1 per cent in 2014. This progress is astounding. When I joined the World Bank in the early 1970s, such advances against extreme poverty seemed almost inconceivable.

Rosling’s magnificent posthumous book, Factfulness, describes these and many other dimensions of progress. These include the spread of female education, improvements in the supply of clean water, the huge rise in the number of vaccinations and even the spread of democracy. The book also helps us think more clearly about why we tend to be (wrongly) so pessimistic. Another new book, Enlightenment Now by the experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, places the credit for these advances where it is due, in the best of the enlightenment project of reason, science and concern for human welfare.

Chart showing rapid decrease in extreme poverty

Progress always leaves much unfinished business. That is true on all the above dimensions. It also creates new challenges. Managing mass urbanisation is one. Another is the ability of disease to spread more quickly than before. We still struggle to contain the fragility of our financial system. But the biggest risks are surely those of global conflict and environmental disaster.

On the former, Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean expert on international relations, brings a compelling warning in his succinct new book, Has the West Lost It? His fundamental messages are, first, that the west won, second, that it is now losing, and, finally, that the west must adapt.

The west has won because everybody realises that science and technology work and a growing number of societies have learnt to harness it.

Chart showing increases in life expectancy

The west is losing, as a direct result of this lesson, because the domination by an eighth of the world’s people is coming to an end. The west must adapt because it has no sensible alternative.

The lesson the west — above all, the US — must learn is, he insists, to interfere far less and co-operate far more. It cannot run the world. It needs to stop its arrogant and usually foolish interventionism. It is hard to disagree with this advice from such a well-informed friend of the west.

Preserving peaceful relations in an era of rapid shifts in relative power is a huge challenge. Yet so, too, is managing the global commons. As humanity becomes richer, its impact on the global environment has hugely increased. The most potent indicator of this is the continuing rise in emissions of greenhouse gases. But important problems also arise elsewhere, notably in the oceans, as a result of overfishing and destruction of habitats. Far too many people in rich countries think the answer is for the billions of poorer people to abandon hopes for a better life.

That is not just immoral: it is infeasible. Remember, not least, that the billion richest people consume more than half of all the fossil fuels we burn.

Chart showing changing share of global GDP

The world is a far, far better place than it was. At the global level, it is even less unequal than it was four decades ago, because of the rapid rise in the average incomes of previously destitute countries. But powerful countries in relative global decline resent their change in position.

Countries that contain substantial populations in relative domestic decline are consumed by the politics of rage. Yet, if progress is to be sustained and the dangers are to be managed, peaceful co-operation is necessary.

The clever way for the west to achieve this, argues Mr Mahbubani, is to adhere to the multilateral rules and agreements they created (such as the Paris accord on climate) in order to encourage China to do the same. That is the opposite of what the US is now doing.

We have come far, and can come much further. But this will not happen automatically and may not happen at all. Am I optimistic that the world will rise to the challenge? The answer is: No.

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