Hans Rosling’s New Insights On Poverty

Hans Rosling, doctor and researcher, seeks to change perceptions about the developing world and dispel myths and common misperceptions. In his latest TED Talk, Rosling shows trends in health and economics, ultimately seeking to explain how countries are pulling themselves out of poverty. The dimensions of development, or the tools necessary to move away from poverty, include human rights, environment, governance, economic growth, education, health and culture. He asserts that economic growth is the most important means to achieve development, but should not necessarily be the most important goal. The primary goals should be the promotion of culture and human rights.

Our Notes

In 1950, the industrialized countries had lower fertility rates and higher life expectancy; conversely, the developing countries had high fertility rates and lower life expectancy at birth. At that time, there was a clear division between developed and developing countries.

As the world changed over time, most developing countries moved towards being the developed countries and demonstrated trends of low fertility rates and high life expectancy. The only real exception to this trend has been Africa, which still exhibits large families and low life expectancy due to the HIV epidemic.

The trends of child mortality rates and GDP per capita show that the countries in the world slowly grew richer and by the 20th century, for the first time, more than ninety-percent of children survived the first year of life.

Rosling asserts, however, that statistics can be misleading. Compared to the U.S. and Sweden overtime, it becomes apparent that countries in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East have achieved advances in health, education, and the possession of human resources faster than developed countries of the West. In the emerging economies of the world, health progress is preceding economic progress.

Additionally, it becomes apparent that every country achieved wealth and health at the cost of carbon dioxide emissions. Global leaders, on the subject of global warming, complain that the emerging economies are releasing too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The emerging economies, suggest that it was the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries, or the wealthier countries, which caused the current trends in climate change. Rosling says that this problem needs to be changed.

Rosling then moves on to discuss poverty, how to get out of poverty, and finally how to move away from poverty to reach permanent development. When an individual is in poverty, everything is about yields—it is about survival and having access to food. To get out of poverty, technology becomes essential. However, for a country to permanently develop, there is a need for a market and human resources specifically schools, health, infrastructure, credits, and information.

It is possible to achieve this, even in Africa where it seems impossible, Rosling claims. According to him, Africa has developed the most. In fifty years they have transitioned from pre-medieval conditions to a status comparable to Europe 100 years ago with functioning nation-states. Misconceptions about development have led people to believe otherwise because the world was grouped solely in two categories: developed and developing. In reality, there are many more factors to examine; it is not a “one-size fits all” situation.

Finally, Rosling ends his presentation by examining the dimensions of development by order of importance: economic growth, governance, education, health, the environment, human rights, and culture. Within these aspects, Rosling distinguishes between the means to achieve development versus the actual goals of development. While economic growth may be the most important means, the end goal for permanent development and well-being of the society must lie in the preservation of culture and the environment. In order to ensure that the culture of a county persists with a sustainable environment, the government must currently implement the means of stable levels of economic growth. With this distinction in mind, Rosling places the greatest goal-oriented emphasis on human rights, culture, environment, health, education, governance and economic growth, respectively.

Our Response

Rosling makes an important claim that no country has experienced health and economic development without increasing carbon dioxide emissions.  While Rosling acknowledges the severity of the problem, he does not offer any solutions. Based on the evidence he provides, and the subsequent lack of evidence on how to change this problem, it may seem like there is no solution. However, several developing countries (namely Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey) have undertaken measures which have increased development and reduced emissions; these measures include making energy prices realistic to decrease energy waste, cutting dependence on foreign oil, using natural gas or other alternative fuel types derived locally, and promoting the development of cleaner energy sources. For more information, view the Pew Center report on global climate change, Climate Change Mitigation in Developing Countries (PDF).

Rosling also claims that economic growth is the most important means to obtaining development. His graphical representation seems to discount other factors that may be just as important. The graph fails to depict the dependency and interconnectivity of all the variables he lists. For example, human rights, especially property rights, are essential to economic growth (see The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else by Hernando de Soto). Furthermore, strong human rights cannot exist without good and stable governance. Even though Rosling seems to understand these points as he does give them some credit as a means to development, it is the poor graphical representation at the end of the lecture which causes confusion.

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