Poorer Countries Continue to Improve

With all that is going wrong in the world, it is crucial to keep in mind the bigger picture: although there is far too much needless misery and suffering, glimmers of progress and hope persistent nonetheless — even in the most beleaguered regions in the world.

As the above date from the the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) shows, literally every part of the world has seen a marked improvement in their “Human Development Index” (HDI), a metric devised in the 1990s in attempt to better capture a country’s standard of living (in a way that GDP cannot). 

The Economist provides a great breakdown of how it works:

The index combines four simple measures: life-expectancy at birth; gross national income per person; average years of education; and expected years of school. First, each variable is normalised on a scale of zero to one; next, the two education variables are averaged; and finally, the index is calculated as the geometric mean of its three components. This ensures that a 1% decline in the index for life-expectancy has the same impact as a decline of the same magnitude in education. By incorporating health and schooling, the HDI seeks to provide a more comprehensive measure of quality of life than the simply material prosperity measured by GDP.

Though far from perfect, HDI is a pretty good barometer for how well a society is doing. And from the looks of it, a lot more places are doing a lot better despite ongoing issues of inequality, climate change, corruption, and other barriers to optimal growth.

In 1990 a child born in sub-Saharan Africa could expect to live just 50 years. Today, assuming current mortality trends persist, newborns can expect to live for 61 years. As a result, the gap in life-expectancy between the world’s poorest region and the global average has narrowed by four years. Similar gains have been registered in educational outcomes and income, meaning that all 189 countries with HDI scores have improved their marks since 1990, by an average of 0.5% a year. Just seven countries have seen a reduction in their HDI score since 2010, often as a result of war or famine.

Encouragingly, the HDI data demonstrate that inequality of life outcomes is declining both across and within countries. As developing countries have closed the gap with their developed-country peers, the coefficient of variation—a measure of the spread of the data across countries—of the HDI has fallen by six percentage points since 1990. Because the “raw” HDI is based on nationwide averages, it can provide a misleading picture of overall living standards in highly unequal countries, where a handful of people enjoy long, wealthy lives and advanced schooling, but the masses do not. \

However, the UNDP also publishes an “inequality-adjusted” version of the HDI, which attempts to account for the distribution of health, education and prosperity. The gap between this metric and the unadjusted HDI was slightly smaller in 2017 than it was the year before, suggesting that well-being is being shared more broadly inside countries as well as between them.

While there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, and these gains remain tenuous in the face of a future global recession, the march of progress across the world is a hopeful sign that more political will and resources can take us further along the moral arc of prosperity and well being for more humans.

For the full ranking of countries by HDI, click here.

One Death v. One Million

Any reporter who has covered a humanitarian disaster should understand what Stalin is once reported to have said to a fellow Soviet official: The death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of one million is a statistic. [Note this account is most likely apocryphal.]

This is why news coverage of a famine or a flood will often highlight the story of one victim.

Or why, say, Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, galvanized global attention to the larger refugee crisis.

It is not easy to wrap one’s mind around thousands of deaths. It becomes an abstraction of geopolitics, economics, conflict dynamics — of statistics.

But a single death can be understood in the more relatable terms of, say, a grieving father or a desperate spouse. Or a murdered journalist, like Mr. Khashoggi.

Psychologists have repeatedly found that people experience a greater emotional reaction to one death than to many, even if the circumstances are identical. Perversely, the more victims, the less sympathy that people feel.

The effect even has a name: collapse of compassion. It’s not that we can’t care about a million deaths, psychologists believe. Rather, we fear being overwhelmed and switch off our own emotions in preemptive self-defense.”

— Max Fisher, “How One Journalist’s Death Provoked a Backlash That Thousands Dead in Yemen Did Not“, New York Times

Greek ““Hero of the Aegean” Who Saved Thousands of Refugees Dies

It seems to always be the case that the most heroic individuals remain obscure even at the height of their courage, let alone later in life. Of course, that speaks even more to their heroism: they do good for its own sake, not for fame, glory, or external validation.

Thus, I doubt that Captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who died of a heart attack this past Thursday, would mind how little-known he is outside his native Greece and the global humanitarian community.  He was too busy being one of the thousands of unsung heroes that were conducting rescue operations throughout the Mediterranean following the “migrant crisis” that began in 2015.  During the peak migration flows from the Middle East into Greece, the Hellenic Coast Guard Captain, a 44-year-old father of two, feverishly conducted rescue operations aboard patrol vessel 605, saving over 5,000 lives in the waters between the Greek island of Lesbos and Turkey.

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For his dedication and selflessness, he was dubbed “the hero of the Aegean” or “the guardian angel of refugees” in Greek media, and was made the subject of an award-winning documentary about his efforts4.1 Miles (named after the short but treacherous distance between Lesbos and Turkey). It was at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017 that Papadopoulos displayed his characteristic humility and compassion, as recounted by the English-language Greek newspaper, The National Herald:

Asked about the awards and honors, Papadopoulos noted that “the greatest honor is knowing we saved ​​a two-year-old child who was trampled in the boat, pulled unconscious, and brought back to life, and the two hundred and more unaccompanied children and the over five thousand refugees we rescued by the end of 2014 until today.”

In the documentary, Papadopoulos expresses sympathy for the refugees and being at a loss to help console them. He even alluded to the random luck of geography in explaining how his country remains relatively stable while neighbors endure bloodshed and chaos.

In a way, I panic, too. I’m scared. I can’t reassure them …When I look into their eyes, I see their memories of war. They come from war. They escape the bombs that fall on their homes. And we see these families … losing each other in the Greek sea. In the sea of a peaceful country because of the way they have to cross.

Greek Maritime Minister Fotis Kouvelis said Papadopoulos “showed Europe what the values of humanity, solidarity, equality and peace mean to Greece”, while the mayor of Lesbos tweeted that his city is poorer following the captain’s loss. All this comes amid the continuing struggles of Greece to accommodate its refugees, most of whom languish in overcrowded and dilapidated camps, or live on the streets of major cities.

Despite humanity’s failure to sort out the refugee crisis—and for that matter the conflicts and calamities that precipitate it—I can derive some solace from the many unsung heroes like Papadopoulos who are still on the ground doing all that they can to stem the tide of human misery.

 

Houston, Texas: America’s Refugee Haven

The title may seem incongruous, but despite Texas’ reputation for toughness and natavism, one of its largest cities, at least, is a national leader in giving refugees from around the world a second chance in life. As the Houston Chronicle reported:

Though all 50 states have accepted some refugees, Texas typically takes about 10.5 percent of the national total, according to U.S. State Department numbers. More of them come to the Houston area than to anywhere else in Texas. In fiscal year 2014, the state health services department reported, nearly 30 percent of Texas’ refugees landed in Harris County.

Taken together, this data means that Harris County alone welcomes about 25 of every 1,000 refugees that the U.N. resettles anywhere in the world — more than any other American city, and more than most other nations. If Greater Houston were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for refugee resettlement.

Perhaps just as surprising is that the U.S. as a whole took the vast majority of refugees (71%) referred by the U.N. for permanent resettlement between 2010 and 2014. In fact, this had been the case since 1980, when the country adopted the Refugee Act, which administrations of both parties have honored. In total, the U.S. has accounted for 3 million out of the 4 million refugees resettled worldwide.

Not surprising, however, is that the U.S. has since reversed this policy: as of 2017, only 33,000 refugees were resettled in America, the lowest in three decades; other countries also saw historic declines, although the U.S. experienced the steepest drop. Though it still takes in the most refugees numerically, in per capita terms Canada, Australia, and Norway resettle the most refugees for their size.

Meanwhile, the refugee crisis is at its worst on recorded, with close to 20 million people internationally displaced (and double that number displaced within their countries).

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Partners in Health

One of my all-time favorite charities is Partners in Health (PIH), which ranks as one of the most transparent and cost-effective charitable organizations in the world.

To highlight just one of many examples of its good work, it has been working for over a decade in the very poor African country of Lesotho, whose 2.1 million people endure some of the worst public health problems in the world. One out of four adults have HIV, the rate of tuberculosis—a nasty respiratory illness—is second only to South Africa, and the maternal mortality rate is at crisis levels. Consequently, the country has a life expectancy of just 54 years.

Since 2006, PIH has been working with Lesotho’s Ministry of Health to tackle these issues while strengthening the nation’s know-how and institutions. In 2014, the government launched its National Health Reform, relying on PIH to help implement a universal healthcare system. Seventy-two underfunded and understaffed health centers, which serve about 40 percent of the population, have been revamped with better staff and equipment. Each of the reformed districts now employs a primary health care coordinator, pharmacist, and data clerk; medicine distribution, record keeping, and communications between health facilities and with patients have improved markedly, leading to more effective health outcomes.

The results speak for themselves: from 2013 to 2017, the number of people tested for HIV has increased an incredible 432 percent, while the number of people treated for HIV has more than double. The number of immunized children has boosted to 53 percent, while deliveries in maternal facilities—which are safer for mother and child alike—have also more than doubled. A massive number of people have been cured of TB. Public trust in the medical system has increased, thus initiating a virtuous cycle wherein more people get the treatment they need. This collaborative effort could serve as a model for other poor nations.

That is the power of civil society staffed and funded by common folks, working together with the public sector. There are plenty of ways your dollar can go far. Check out their website here to learn more and to donate. Rest assured it will be money well spent.

Volunteer Rescuers of Migrants Acquitted of Criminal Charges

The sheer humanity of people in the face of suffering and injustice will never cease to captivate and inspire me. A couple of days ago, five individuals — three Spaniards and two Danes — were acquitted of charges in Greece of facilitating illegal immigration into they country when they volunteered to save migrants during the height of the crisis last year. According to the New York Times:

“This is a strong signal to other NGOs and just people working for humanity,” said one of the Danish defendants, Salam Aldeen, the founder of Team Humanity, speaking by telephone after the verdict. “Saving lives is not a crime, rescuing people is not a crime.”

Mr. Aldeen said he was now eager to return home after nearly two years in Greece — his pretrial conditions included being barred from leaving the country. He continued working as a rescuer during that time, he said.

“I lost everything but I did not lose my humanity,” he said.

Along with Mr. Aldeen and another Dane, Mohammed el-Abassi, who also worked for Team Humanity, three Spanish firefighters who volunteered for the Spanish group Proem-Aid faced as many as 15 years in prison.

The five were arrested on Jan. 14, 2016, just a few hours after successfully rescuing 51 migrants, according to Mr. Aldeen, the owner of the boat on which the five were working.

Not long after their operation, the men said, they had alerted the Greek authorities to another migrant boat in trouble, without approaching it. They were arrested soon after. “We didn’t even see the boat,” Mr. Aldeen had contended.

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How an International Coalition is Tackling One of the World’s Most Widespread Diseases

Hepatitis C is a nasty and virulent liver disease that affects over 71 million people worldwide and kills 400,000 people annually. While highly effective medicines are available, their high cost — from $12,000 in Chile to over $84,000 in the U.S. for a 12-week treatment course — means barely 3 million people get treatment.

Enter globalization: a Swiss nonprofit dedicated to providing low-cost medical treatments, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), has teamed up with an Egyptian drugmaker, Pharco Pharmaceuticals, to create a cheaper treatment program based on two U.S.-made drugs that are too expensive for most people.

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Lessons from Bangladesh in Reducing Child Mortality

Bangladesh — the world’s eighth most populous country with 162 million inhabitants — has made tremendous and inspiring strides in reducing child mortality. This is despite the fact that it is a very poor country, with half the GDP per capita of not-particularly-rich neighbors India and Pakistan.

Less than two decades ago, the rate of death for children under five was 54% higher than the global average — now, it is 16% lower than the world average, and less than even its comparatively wealthier neighbors. Child deaths from diarrhea and other enteric diseases (e.g. those from bacterial contamination of food and drink) have declined a whopping 90%; whereas in 1994, 14% of Bangladesh children in surveyed households had suffered some sort of serious enteric illness, by 2014 that number halved to 7%.

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The World’s Looming Water Crisis

Today is World Water Day, which the U.N. commemorated in 1993 to highlight the importance — and growing scarcity — of potable freshwater. Unfortunately, the problem has only gotten worse in the subsequent decades, as the following map from National Geographic makes vividly clear:

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Why Do Millions of Children Have to Die?

It is fitting that following my previous post on the growth in the global millionaire community, I decide to reflect on the moral travesty that is child mortality. I say moral because it is a problem that need not still exist to the degree that it does, and that only persists because our global economic system are not sufficiently guided by ethical principles.

Historically, around 43 percent of children died before the age of five; as fairly recently as the 19th century, every second or third child would perish, even in relatively developed Western countries. Although child mortality has declined rapidly over recent decades — down to 4.3 percent globally, compared to 8 percent in 2000 and 18 percent in 1960 — it is still far higher than it should be.

Nowadays, anywhere from 6 to 9 million children die before their fifth birthday, and nearly half of them die within a month of their birth. (This does not include millions more that die before adulthood.) About 42 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, account for 90 percent of these deaths. Two-thirds of these children die from causes that are easily preventable, namely diarrhea, pneumonia, malnutrition, and malaria. Continue reading