The world is getting better (and so are some things in NC)

A child in Pakistan reads a “speaking book” produced by Brian Julius of Hilton Head Island as part of a worldwide effort to eradicate polio.
A child in Pakistan reads a “speaking book” produced by Brian Julius of Hilton Head Island as part of a worldwide effort to eradicate polio. Submitted

Is the world getting better or worse?

Given the news these days, it would be easy to think it’s the latter. But if you dig into the data, you might be surprised.

This is the premise of the recent book “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think,” by Hans Rosling. Bill Gates has called it one of the most important books he’s ever read and has pledged to give a copy to every 2018 college graduate in the United States.

At a time when only 6 percent of U.S citizens surveyed think the world is getting better, Rosling uses the book as “statistics therapy.” He points to some encouraging facts: over the past 20 years, the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty has almost halved (the fastest drop ever in world history); over the last 200 years, life expectancy has more than doubled (from 30 years to 72 years– 10 years longer than it was 40 years ago); and the average birth rate is actually declining (the world’s total population is expected to peak around 11 billion people in 2050 and then stabilize).

The biggest contributor to these shifts is that communities worldwide are becoming less poor through increased education, better access to health care, and improved infrastructure like plumbing and electricity.

Simultaneously, innovation is improving the quality and access of transformative technologies. The average price of a solar panel, for example, has gone from $66 in 1976 to $0.6 forty years later. HIV infections have gone down by more than 50 percent since 1996 (from 549 per million people to 241 in 2016) and new drugs mean that HIV is no longer a death sentence. In 1970, there were over 1.6 million tons of ozone depleting substances used – in 2016 it was “only” 22,000.

This brings up another important point of Rosling’s: when faced with the daunting challenges facing our society it is easy to get disheartened and passive. But, demonstrable progress can provide hope and strengthen our resolve to keep pushing forward.

With concerted international effort, for instance, we eradicated smallpox in 1979. In 1985, Rotary International launched its PolioPlus program, the first global initiative to eradicate the crippling disease of polio through mass vaccination. Since then, Rotary’s investment of $1.7 billion and countless volunteer hours, has helped to catalyze a global effort. and more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized in 122 countries – dropping polio incidence more than 99 percent.

In North Carolina, the graduation rate from our high schools has gone up every year for the past 12 years – now exceeding 86 percent (in 2005-2006 it was 68 percent). Making progress towards a 100 percent graduation rate is going to require innovative approaches, persistent effort and investment, and a public resolve to keep the twelve-year streak going. But the improvement should give us confidence that we can also help the 14 percent who aren’t getting over the finish line.

In 2001, North Carolina launched “More at Four” to provide quality preschool education for at-risk four year olds. The program, now “NC Pre-K,” has been cited as one of the highest quality in the nation.

Yet, there is more work to be done. Currently there is a long wait list and only half of eligible children are being served.But NC Pre-K’s success to date should give us confidence that we can now move to ensure that every child eligible for NC Pre-K is enrolled. It is encouraging that, buoyed by broad bi-partisan public support, the N.C. General Assembly recently voted an increase in funding for the program.

It’s easy to be discouraged these days, but it is important to remember that armed with facts and resolve we have the power to make things better.

Christopher Gergen is the CEO of Forward Cities and founding partner of HQ Raleigh. Frederick Mayer is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy and director of the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service at Duke University. They can be reached at authors@forwardcities.org.