Authors: Hans Rosling
Look how nicely the world’s countries fall into the two boxes: developing and developed. And between the two boxes there is a clear gap, containing just 15 small countries (including Cuba, Ireland, and Singapore) where just 2 percent of the world’s population lives. In the box labeled “developing,” there are 125 bubbles, including China and India. In all those countries, women have more than five children on average, and child deaths are common: fewer than 95 percent of children survive, meaning that more than 5 percent of children die before their fifth birthday. In the other box labeled “developed,” there are 44 bubbles, including the United States and most of Europe. In all those countries the women have fewer than 3.5 children per woman and child survival is above 90 percent.
The world fits into two boxes. And these are exactly the two boxes that the student in the third row had imagined. This picture clearly shows a world divided into two groups, with a gap in the middle. How nice. What a simple world to understand! So what’s the big deal? Why is it so wrong to label countries as “developed” and “developing”? Why did I give my student who referred to “us and them” such a hard time?
Because this picture shows the world in 1965! When I was a young man. That’s the problem. Would you use a map from 1965 to navigate around your country? Would you be happy if your doctor was using cutting-edge research from 1965 to suggest your diagnosis and treatment? The picture below shows what the world looks like today.
The world has completely changed. Today, families are small and child deaths are rare in the vast majority of countries, including the largest: China and India. Look at the bottom left-hand corner. The box is almost empty. The small box, with few children and high survival, that’s where all countries are heading. And most countries are already there. Eighty-five percent of mankind are already inside the box that used to be named “developed world.” The remaining 15 percent are mostly in between the two boxes. Only 13 countries, representing 6 percent of the world population, are still inside the “developing” box. But while the world has changed, the worldview has not, at least in the heads of the “Westerners.” Most of us are stuck with a completely outdated idea about the rest of the world.
The complete world makeover I’ve just shown is not unique to family size and child survival rates. The change looks very similar for pretty much any aspect of human lives. Graphs showing levels of income, or tourism, or democracy, or access to education, health care, or electricity would all tell the same story: that the world used to be divided into two but isn’t any longer. Today, most people are in the middle. There is no gap between the West and the rest, between developed and developing, between rich and poor. And we should all stop using the simple pairs of categories that suggest there is.
My students were dedicated, globally aware young people who wanted to make the world a better place. I was shocked by their blunt ignorance of the most basic facts about the world. I was shocked that they actually thought there were two groups, “us” and “them,” shocked to hear them saying that “they” could not live like “us.” How was it even possible that they were walking around with a 30-year-old worldview in their heads?
Pedaling home through the rain that evening in October 1995, my fingers numb, I felt fired up. My plan had worked. By bringing the data into the classroom I had been able to prove to my students that the world was not divided into two. I had finally managed to capture their misconception. Now I felt the urge to take the fight further. I realized I needed to make the data even clearer. That would help me to show more people, more convincingly, that their opinions were nothing more than unsubstantiated feelings. That would help me to shatter their illusions that they knew things that really they only felt.
Twenty years later I’m sitting in a fancy TV studio in Copenhagen in Denmark. The “divided” worldview is 20 years older, 20 years more outdated. We’re live on air, and the journalist tilts his head and says to me, “We still see an enormous difference between the small, rich world, the old Western world mostly, and then the large part.”
“But you’re totally wrong,” I reply.
Once more I explain that “poor developing countries” no longer exist as a distinct group. That there is no gap. Today, most people, 75 percent, live in middle-income countries. Not poor, not rich, but somewhere in the middle and starting to live a reasonable life. At one end of the scale there are still countries with a majority living in extreme and unacceptable poverty; at the other is the wealthy world (of North America and Europe and a few others like Japan, South Korea, and Singapore). But the vast majority are already in the middle.
“And what do you base that knowledge on?” continued the journalist in an obvious attempt to be provocative. And he succeeded. I couldn’t help getting irritated and my agitation showed in my voice, and my words: “I use normal statistics that are compiled by the World Bank and the United Nations. This is not controversial. These facts are not up for discussion. I am right and you are wrong.”
Now that I have been fighting the misconception of a divided world for 20 years, I am no longer surprised when I encounter it. My students were not special. The Danish journalist was not special. The vast majority of the people I meet think like this. If you are skeptical about my claim that so many people get it wrong, that’s good. You should always require evidence for claims like these. And here it is, in the form of a two-part misconception trap.
First, we had people disclose how they imagined life in so-called low-income countries, by asking questions like this one from the test you did in the introduction.
FACT QUESTION 1
In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?
A: 20 percent
B: 40 percent
C: 60 percent
On average just 7 percent picked the correct answer, C: 60 percent of girls finish primary school in low-income countries. (Remember, 33 percent of the chimps at the zoo would have gotten this question right.) A majority of people “guessed” that it was just 20 percent. There are only a very few countries in the world—exceptional places like Afghanistan or South Sudan—where fewer than 20 percent of girls finish primary school, and at most 2 percent of the world’s girls live in such countries.
When we asked similar questions about life expectancy, undernourishment, water quality, and vaccination rates—essentially asking what proportion of people in low-income countries had access to the basic first steps toward a modern life—we got the same kinds of results. Life expectancy in low-income countries is 62 years. Most people have enough to eat, most people have access to improved water, most children are vaccinated, and most girls finish primary school. Only tiny percentages—way less than the chimps’ 33 percent—got these answers right, and large majorities picked the worst alternative we offered, even when those numbers represented levels of misery now being suffered only during terrible catastrophes in the very worst places on Earth.
Now let’s close the trap, and capture the misconception. We now know that people believe that life in low-income countries is much worse than it actually is. But how many people do they imagine live such terrible lives? We asked people in Sweden and the United States:
Of the world population, what percentage lives in low-income countries?
The majority suggested the answer was 50 percent or more. The average guess was 59 percent.
The real figure is 9 percent. Only 9 percent of the world lives in low-income countries. And remember, we just worked out that those countries are not nearly as terrible as people think. They are really bad in many ways, but they are not at or below the level of Afghanistan, Somalia, or Central African Republic, the worst places to live on the planet.
To summarize: low-income countries are much more developed than most people think. And vastly fewer people live in them. The idea of a divided world with a majority stuck in misery and deprivation is an illusion. A complete misconception. Simply wrong.
If the majority doesn’t live in low-income countries, then where does it live? Surely not in high-income countries?