The Optimist

Some Horsemen

Apocalypse buffs and international development types have one thing in common: They're both wrong.


Mayan mythology enthusiasts, Christian evangelicals, and assorted conspiracy theorists all have their reasons to believe the world is going to end the Saturday after next, May 21. We will know that this particular date is wrong soon enough — or we’ll be too busy being flambéed to care. But it’s worth engaging the generally apocalyptically inclined, nonetheless, if just to prove that, even on the terms of their own dystopian visions, the end of days are nowhere close to being near. All the things that should be happening as we approach the final reckoning — contagious disease, starvation, mass violence, that kind of stuff — have never been rarer planetwide. That’s a success of global development, of course — but you wouldn’t know it from either the placard-bearing apocalypsta or the tin-cup-waving development agencies. And it is a sign that both need a new marketing strategy.

In the Bible, plague, famine, war, and death arrive at the end of days in order to pave the way for the judgment of the quick and the dead. The Hindu Bhavishya Purana, meanwhile, suggests that near the end of the world the age of human beings will be reduced to 10 years and height will be reduced to 2 to 3 feet. Watch the evening news, and you might get the sense the apocalypse is near upon us. In fact half of all news stories concern violence, conflict, and suffering, according to Roger Johnson, a professor emeritus at Ramapo College. But if those are our markers for the end times, the world needn’t expect the Last Judgment anytime soon: Plague, famine, war, short life expectancies, and stunted people are increasingly rare. Rather than heeding or ignoring the many popular calls to repent our sins, we should be asking what everyone is so worried about.

Let’s take the signs of apocalypse in turn. The tragedy of AIDS has created a new plague in sub-Saharan Africa, but the original — pneumonic plague, known by its acquaintances as the Black Death — is everywhere in retreat. A disease that killed more than a third of the population of Europe in its heyday is now defeated by a simple course of antibiotics. More broadly, deaths from all kinds of infectious diseases are on the decline thanks to rapidly climbing vaccination rates and the development of a range of simple cures. Famine only affected three-tenths of a percent of Africa’s population between 1990 and 2005, according to William Easterly of New York University — reflecting a growing global availability of food and increased agricultural trade. Meanwhile, the number of wars ongoing worldwide fell from 24 to five between 1984 and 2008. As a result of better health and nutrition, average heights in India (and a lot of other places) are increasing. And Death is being forced to bide his time like never before. Of all the people in human history who ever reached the age of 65, half are alive now. In 1990, nearly 12 million children worldwide died before they had reached their fifth birthday. Today that figure is below 8 million.

So, overall, we’ve been reining back from the gallop to Armageddon. What, then, explains the widespread sense of crisis? For a start, statistical analysis of news stories on developing countries in particular suggests a focus on the apocalyptic rather than the positive. Peaceful elections or declining mortality rates in Africa are apparently of little interest to the U.S. or European news consumer. And that’s not surprising — narratives of death and destruction are a far more powerful source of interest than stories about things that have happy endings. Want people to pay attention? Show them tragedy. It works for Hollywood, just as it works for TV news.

And, of course, it also works for well-meaning nonprofits and aid agencies trying to raise attention and funding to respond to development challenges. Worldwide progress is largely about the absence of exciting stuff going on — fewer people shot or felled by disease: the four horsemen staying in their stable. But things not happening don’t endear themselves to compelling calls to action. Remember Tolstoy’s maxim: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

So much do development agencies, NGOs, and the media see crisis as a valuable motivator of interest and action that they are quite willing to label even unprecedented success as failure. Over the last 30 years, for example, Burkina Faso has seen primary school enrollment climb from 14 percent to 63 percent of primary-age kids. That’s far more rapid progress than managed by the developed world in the past — or by the vast majority of developing countries more recently. But Burkina Faso will fail to achieve universal primary school completion by 2015. According the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which lay out targets for development progress to 2015 in areas from health and gender equality to enrollment rates, that means Burkina Faso is a failure — and it joins a number of countries trumpeted as "off track." And despite the fact that the developing world as a whole has reduced child mortality by a third between 1990 and 2008 alone, meaning millions of kids are alive today who would be dead if we had the health conditions prevalent at the close of the Cold War, the world as a whole will surely fail to meet the MGD for child mortality — and the many successes will be condemned as part of a losing effort.

Of course, the world still has plenty of tragedy and suffering. Fifteen percent of children born this year in Niger will die before their first birthday. Many millions around the world are affected by conflict; as many as a billion people may be undernourished. And looking forward, the global economy is devouring natural resources at an unsustainable rate; and climate change is no longer a distant threat but a present reality. At the same time, we’ve made immense progress in overcoming such global challenges in the past — and that’s surely the best reason to think that we can do so again in the future.

Still, nearly every agency continually cries crisis — and that reduces the incentive to give assistance to any of them. If, after 40 years of working to combat such crises by NGOs, aid agencies, and governments, everyone agrees we’re still in a crisis, that surely suggests it is pointless to try to help. It gives ample cover to politicians who want to slash aid budgets as money wasted on Third World ratholes. We’ve failed to lift a crisis for 40 years, they say — so, what’s different now?

The tragedy of continually crying wolf is that NGOs, aid agencies, and governments have in fact been part of the immense progress in quality of life we’ve seen worldwide over those 40 years. And that’s why it makes sense to provide continuing assistance. The apocalypse now is further off in the future than ever before, so it is long past time to change the marketing strategy for development. It might work for Glenn Beck, but Raj Shah can do better.

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