SEATTLE — Judging from the headlines, 2005 was a gloomy year, indeed. Gulf Coast hurricanes, the devastating earthquake in Kashmir, ongoing war in Iraq, civil war in Sudan, renewed famine in central Africa, and the threat of a worldwide pandemic flu darkened the news. These headlines, however, obscure a far brighter underlying trend: On average, people across the planet are living longer, healthier lives, with greater opportunities for education and political freedom than ever before.
We unavoidably view our world through news articles that break up an otherwise overwhelming stream of information into digestible bites. As a result, we often "lose the forest for the trees" by focusing on sensational short-term stories that impact relatively few people. It is difficult to place these singular events in context and it is all too easy to lose sight of more fundamental developments. If we step back from daily headlines and examine broader global trends in human progress, an encouraging picture for 2005 emerges.
Income: Worldwide incomes are at their highest levels in history and are rising. Since 1960, more than 1 billion people have pulled themselves out of the direst poverty. This trend caused the World Bank to conclude that "the past two decades have witnessed one of the most rapid reductions in poverty in human history." This success has been propelled by China, which alone has lifted more than 400 million out of poverty in the past 20 years. Other countries, such as Bangladesh, have made substantial strides in poverty reduction - without China's high rates of economic growth - through progressive government programs focused on improving healthcare and education. The rapid globalization of the world economy and industrialization of many formerly agricultural economies, which has unquestionably brought environmental loss and social upheaval, has raised incomes for billions of people.
Health and education: Across the planet, people are living on average seven years longer than they lived in the 1970s, and the gap between life expectancies in the richest and poorest countries has closed by 10 years since 1960. Childhood mortality rates, a key indicator for advances in health systems, has steadily declined worldwide. Literacy has slowly risen in developing countries, now reaching 76 percent. Primary school enrollment has advanced steadily, with more than 8 out of 10 youth now in school. The devastating expansion of HIV/AIDs has been a notable and troubling exception to these positive trends.
Political and civil rights: Fully one-half of the world's population now lives in countries that have multiparty electoral systems that respect basic human rights - the highest level in history. The breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991 precipitated a move toward Western system democracies not only within the borders of the former Soviet Union but also within former "client" states. During the past three decades, more than 80 countries in Central Europe, East Asia, Latin America, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa have all notched gains in political and civil rights and more than 30 military dictatorships have been replaced by civilian governments.
Armed conflict: While the 20th century was the bloodiest in human history, the number of armed conflicts has declined steadily from about 50 in 1990 to less than 30 today - nearly the lowest levels since the end of World War II. The number of men and women in uniform and total world military spending has eased from cold war peaks. Catastrophic wars between major states that pervaded Europe and Asia until the end of World War II have largely been replaced by smaller-scale internal conflicts, primarily in lower-income countries. Progress toward a safer world, however, unlike progress in health, education, and income, can be quickly reversed with the outbreak of a single major conflict. Recent brinkmanship between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan is the most chilling reminder of this danger.
Such a sweeping survey of the state of our species is doomed to overlook and oversimplify, masking the still troubling worldwide problems of poverty, strife, and injustice. The progress of many has been mirrored by a retreat for more than a quarter of the world's population into isolation, poor health, and extreme poverty. People living in part of sub-Saharan Africa and some countries of the former Soviet Union have actually seen their well-being decline over the past decade.
These global problems can be overwhelming and appear to defy our best intentions and efforts. Yet the unmistakable progress of the majority of humanity strikes a brighter note. This progress should not make us complacent, but rather fuel optimism that the human industry and creativity that has achieved such tremendous progress can be further tapped to tackle our unmet challenges, allowing us to begin the new year with confidence and resolve.
• Brian McCartan is director of Global Trends Project, an independent nonprofit which researches global trends in economics and security issues.