Facts not Fancy

‘Factfulness’ simply means paying attention to, analysing and using readily available data about the world and the people in it. These data are rarely dramatic, or even newsworthy, but none the less they tell of lives transformed. We learn of dramatic improvements over the last twenty years: the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has halved and life expectancy has rocketed. In the first year of independence in Bangladesh in 1972, a woman could expect to live until 52; now a newborn there should live to 73. In 1975, just 58% of children survived cancer for five years; today 80% do. In 1980, only 22% of the world’s children had access to immunisation, a percentage now increased by a factor of 4.

And itʼs not simply that the good life is being enjoyed by more people everywhere; the bad times too are fading. Whether it be deaths from disaster (less than a tenth what they were eighty years ago), or the numbers of nuclear warheads, or deaths on the battlefield (even including those in Syria), or ozone depleting substances or the price and availability of solar panels: they are all falling.

Rosling recalls an African Union conference in Addis Ababa in 2013 – “The African Renaissance and Agenda for 2063”.   Having presented a data driven case that in just twenty years extreme poverty would be ended in Africa, he was reproved by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zumba, chairing the meeting. “You are good at talking but you don’t have any vision”. Dlamini-Zumba did not delight at the prospect of Africa emerging from “extreme” poverty to “ordinary” poverty, and becoming an acceptable and functioning tourist destination for “your grandchildren”. Nkosazana wanted more. She rejected the “same old European vision”, or the tired and condescending generalisation about aid for Africa. Rather, through hard work, “wise decisions and large investments” her continent should be as prosperous as any on earth. “Africans will become tourists in Europe and not unwanted refugees”.

Rosling’s own Ten Rules of Thumb to guide thinking emphasise that the rational analysis of the facts  should be favoured over the tendency for a humane reaction to bad events, or a natural empathy for the victims, which often mean that “bad” trumps the “better”. Such attitudes may prompt action, but they are also prey for activists, politicians and pure doomsayers with their own agendas.

Rosling also stresses the need to avoid generalisation. Generalisation not only condescends and pigeon holes – “the developing world”, “African culture”, “Islamic fundamentalism’. It also stops us from understanding that we all have far more in common as consumers, voters, fathers, mothers and children than ever before.

This may not suit the culture of blame or liberal conscience of the cosseted elites in Hollywood or Washington, but it is the undeniable truth. In Roslingʼs system of measurement, adopted since 2013 by the World Bank, in “Dollar St” most of us live towards the middle.

Rosling’s Factfulness promotes a proportionate and optimistic view of the world. The pessimistic views we more commonly encounter overpower through shock. By contrast, peace, prosperity and progress come in tiny steps and in a myriad of places.

Anthony Coombs

Anthony Coombs has been Chairman of S&U plc since 2008. Between 1987 and 1997 he served as Conservative Member of Parliament for Wyre Forest.

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