Progress report: Getting better globally

Up close, there are grave problems in the world -- hunger, repression, discrimination, violence. But when you take the long view, you can see evidence of progress on many fronts.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Zuni, age 3, smiles for the photographer at a park in New Dehli.

Half full or half empty? You can’t go wrong with half empty. It’s the serious person’s default mode. No one can say “I told you so” when bad things happen. No one can accuse you of being a Pollyanna or glossing over the suffering in the world. 

They’re right about the suffering. Progress is happening on many provable fronts. But it is not evenly distributed. In Syria, Somalia, AfghanistanZimbabwe, North Korea, and too many other places, violence, fear, hunger, and oppression still hold sway. These are real problems that demand intelligent, compassionate, and sometimes aggressive action.

With the reach of global media, we know more about bad things happening in the far corners of the world than ever before. Shining a light on bad things alerts good people to what’s going on. That can be the first step in rallying international aid or pressing governments to treat their people better.
But perspective is important. Focus only on present pain and suffering, and the world looks bleak. Take the long view, however, and there is strong evidence that war is actually decreasing, poverty is shrinking, women’s rights are improving, and democracy is awakening.

Up close, the pain is real and immediate. Step back, however, and you’ll see a world getting better.

Here’s a small illustration of what I mean. I recently scooped up a trove of old Life magazines at a thrift store and took the Wayback Machine to the late 1960s. Along with the amusing images and ads (wow, were cigarettes and booze hawked shamelessly!), the celebrity profiles (Candice Bergen, Joe Paterno) and slice-of-life features (“A Tom Sawyer Boyhood – 1970 Style”), were stories of war, racial tension, and urban blight. And on one page was an interesting juxtaposition: book reviews of Joan Didion’s “Play It As It Lays” and Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock.” 

Ms. Didion’s reviewer noted how with “eyes that will not shut properly” she eloquently described the suffering and pain too many people experience. On the same page, Mr. Toffler (a man of “genuinely humane temper,” said his reviewer) was grudgingly applauded for seeing a coming world of greater diversity and freedom.

Both authors have been proved right. Forty years later, Didion remains an eyewitness to life’s pain, having written recently about the loss of her husband and daughter. And yet, over time, Toffler’s vision of a better future also rings true.

Here’s a prediction: Forty years from now, there will still be pain and broken hearts. But year by year, human progress will have increased, too. 

* * *

Hope is an important – but not a sufficient – condition for progress.

Last spring, The Monitor published Jina Moore’s powerful cover story on peacebuilding (“The Peacebuilders,” April 4). If you haven’t read it, it is well worth your time. As Jina noted, after war and social breakdown, after peacemaking and peacekeeping, something more needs to be done. “Peacebuilding,” she wrote, “is about what comes next – the slow and thankless slog of building a country back up.”

On Dec. 14, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon awarded Jina the highest honor of the UN Correspondents Association for her cover story. (Her reporting was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.) 

The award is named in honor of Elizabeth Neuffer, a correspondent for The Boston Globe who died in Iraq in 2003. I was privileged to work with Elizabeth. Like Jina, she traveled the world writing not just about conflict but its causes and aftermath. Her 2001 book, “The Key to My Neighbor’s House,” examined the search for justice in post-conflict Bosnia and Rwanda.

Violence and hatred do terrible damage. It takes hope and hard work to build peace.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. 

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