A farewell to Hans Rosling

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Tuesday 4 Oct 2022

International conditions will remain better than many people might think as long as we can avoid the five major threats hanging over humanity.

 

The Swedish physician and statistician Hans Rosling dedicated his life to explaining information in simple and memorable ways, spreading awareness on both the importance of statistics and the hazardous effects of misleading data on decision-making.

Before he passed away in 2017, he was finishing a book called Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Fate did not give him enough time to finish it, however, so his family completed it and published it posthumously.

I reviewed this important book in the media after the book appeared. However, some days ago, a friend who is an avid follower of social media told me he had come across an article that had cited a passage from my review, which was published on 11 July 2018. My friend asked me whether my opinion had changed in the four years since then.

I told him I would send him my answer in writing, preferring that he read it in published form:

Dear friend,

I was delighted to meet you again after so long at the annual Arab Society for Economic Research Conference in Al-Alamein. Thank you for your question and your interest in what I wrote about Hans Rosling. The concluding paragraph, which had caught your attention, reads as follows:

“Although Rosling concluded, on the basis of data and other evidence, that the world has actually progressed far more than is commonly believed, he holds that this progress faces five threats: the spread of epidemic diseases, financial crises, wars, climate change, and the likelihood of an increase in extreme poverty.”

This paragraph should be read in two parts. The first is about Rosling’s defence of a reality that he observed, documented, and described using the types of graphics and visualisations characteristic of his works. You will be struck by his conclusion, which is that the world is much better off than people think.

As he related in his book, he put 13 questions on economic and social trends to 12,000 people from 14 countries and found that most of their answers were wrong. Moreover, experts from international organisations and institutions did not perform much better, even though the questions were straightforward and about familiar subjects such as poverty rates, population growth in different parts of the world, female education, the vaccination of children, and climate change.

The average score on the 13-question survey was only two correct answers. This is what inspired Rosling to write Factfulness, which identifies what makes people inclined to accept negative impressions and fall prey to erroneous beliefs and misinformation. I summarised these causes in the above-mentioned article, though it would be better if you refer back to the book itself in English or translation.

The second part of the paragraph, which caused you to remark that it was an amazing prediction, relates to the fact that some criticised Rosling for being overly optimistic. In fact, however, he established certain conditions for progress to remain sustained. These were based on his observations of cases of development and underdevelopment around the world, diverse studies he had undertaken in Sweden and India, and his experiences as a physician in Sweden and in Africa. At all times, he rigidly adhered to the rules of scientific method to ensure that his vision remained unclouded by bias.

The essence of these conditions, which ordinary people can readily grasp, is that the world must avoid five grave dangers: the spread of epidemic diseases, financial crises, wars, climate change and growth in extreme poverty.

Perhaps the fact that Rosling wrote this in 2017, combined with the way events have unfolded in the world since then, gave you the impression that he was a kind of seer. After all, have we not just experienced the first danger in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic that infected 623 million people worldwide and killed 6.5 million? Did not this pandemic precipitate plunging rates of economic growth and trade, soaring rates of unemployment and skyrocketing prices and national debt, and deteriorating standards of living?

The second danger, financial crisis, has not reached the magnitude of the 2008 world financial crisis. The world’s financial markets are fluctuating rapidly today and experiencing a slump, but the major banks still have liquidity and remain solvent. On the other hand, the developing countries and emerging markets are suffering from sporadic spasms due to the rising costs of obtaining international financing and the downward slide of major and local currencies against the US dollar, the currency to which people most often run at times of crisis.

This is despite the deteriorating performance of the US economy. Whereas the US growth rate hovered around 5.7 per cent in 2021, it shrank to 0.6 per cent in the second quarter of this year, leading some to conclude that the US is in a recession. On the other hand, the labour market shows that the US economy is still robust enough to outperform the European economies, some of which have already fallen into a recessionary spiral. But in the short term what supports the dollar is its high returns and the prevalent belief in the markets that the economy that uses it has the greatest capacity to cope with local and international inflationary pressures.

Bear in mind, though, that a strong dollar is not in the interest of the global economy as a whole or in the interest of the developing economies in particular, because of how it affects monetary flows and aggravates debt problems.

Before long, the largest economy in the world will encounter problems related to the competitiveness of its productive sectors. 

You might ask what courses of action the developing nations should take in the face of global exchange rate fluctuations. I can only remind you of the need to focus on economic fundamentals, not appearances, and on the causes of progress or underdevelopment, not the symptoms. Try not to be like a frantic sailor in a boat on a storm-tossed sea who abandons everything else to concentrate on steadying a single oar, while the boat itself and everything and everyone on it, including himself, is about to capsize.

Rosling’s third condition, world war, may not have been realised in its fullest sense. But conflict is raging in Ukraine and has cost thousands of innocent lives and strained an already weary global economy. The war cast a shadow over the recent UN General Assembly meeting, in which mutual threats and recriminations reminded many of the Cold War. The UN secretary-general’s speech at the General Assembly brimmed with sorrow and anger at the state of international relations due to the war and intimations on the part of some of a possible recourse to the most lethal weapons in humankind’s arsenals while others seemed to cheer on the folly of another war as they thought back to the conflicts of the past. The underlying theme is that there is a huge deficit of trust and a surplus of double standards amidst mounting geopolitical tensions.

As for the fourth danger, climate change, and its threats to people’s lives and livelihoods, Rosling’s book appeared two years and a bit after the Paris Climate Conference in 2015. Today, seven years after the Paris Agreement that was binding on all parties, the world is not on track to save the planet from the harm that some have inflicted on the climate.

Climate work needs a major boost from the forthcoming UN COP27 Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh in order to accelerate efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to keep the Earth’s temperature from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above its average temperature on the eve of the First Industrial Revolution. Adaptation requires greater awareness because of the risks involved, while the matter of compensation for harm and damage needs to be wrenched out of near total inaction. All this boils down to the question of financing climate work, an area so far characterised by a lack of funds, ineffective mechanisms, and unfairness.

The fifth danger is one that Rosling rejoiced had steadily declined over the two decades before his death. Unfortunately, the rate of extreme poverty has increased since then for the first time since the 1990s because of the pandemic and then the war in Ukraine. Instead of reaching 581 million, as was predicted for 2022, the number of extremely poor people has surpassed 677 million, putting the hope of attaining the first of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the elimination of extreme hunger by 2030, further out of reach. Naturally, this will aggravate other social, political, and economic ills, not the least of which is illegal migration.

Rosling was not a clairvoyant and he had no crystal ball. He dedicated his life to the pursuit of truth and the avoidance of myth. He drew attention to the five aforementioned threats in order to encourage action to ward them off. He mentioned that it is difficult to predict when epidemics, financial crises, and world wars might break out because of their complex nature. Climate change and extreme poverty, on the other hand, are phenomena we have observed at first hand and know how to fight. The key to remedying them is international cooperation.

This may be one of the reasons why Rosling was accused of being overly optimistic. He seemed too confident in the possibility of international cooperation, a precondition of which is to halt the causes and effects of humankind’s assault on the climate, nature, and itself. It takes large reserves of political will to achieve and sustain such cooperation.

Hopefully, dear friend, your interest in the life and works of Hans Rosling has grown. If so, you could begin by watching his famous TED talk or his talks elsewhere on social networking platforms with which you are more familiar than me.

Wishing you and our world the most heartfelt prayers for peace!


* An Arabic version of this article appeared on Wednesday in Asharq Al-Awsat.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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