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Episode 6: Poverty Progress

After surveying a global segment of the population, the Gapminder organization in Sweden found that only 10 percent of people knew the state of extreme poverty. Why is it that our perceptions are so… wrong?

SOURCE: Glocalities; Gapminder; Our World in Data, based on World Bank and Bourguignon and Morrisson
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Editor's note: This page includes a transcript of episode six, "Poverty Progress." To listen to the episode, please visit our landing page.

SAMANTHA LAINE PERFAS: Let's start this episode with a pop quiz. Here's the question: In the past 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has: A) almost doubled. B) Remained more or less the same. Or C) Almost halved. Guess what? Less than 10 percent of you will get this answer right. We've got a perception gap.

I'm Samantha Laine Perfas and this is Perception Gaps by The Christian Science Monitor.

This question comes from the book "Factfulness" by Hans Rosling, co-written with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna, who's one of the guests on today's show. The book talks about the various ways we're wrong about the world. So what is the answer, regarding the global state of poverty? It's actually C. World poverty has been cut nearly in half in the last 20 years. The biggest driver of that progress is the economic growth in Asia, especially China and India. The two countries with the largest populations in the world each had about 40 percent of their people living in extreme poverty 20 years ago. Today, India is at 12 percent, and China has less than 1 percent of its people living on $2 a day. Another big contributor, according to the World Bank, is more investment in education and health care for girls and women. If so much progress has been made on world poverty, why do so many of us still perceive that poverty is this unsolvable issue, and why do we think that little or no progress has been made?

ANNA ROSLING RONNLUND: I'm Anna Rosling Ronnlund, and I'm one of the co-founders of the Gapminder Foundation based in Sweden, and I also co-wrote the book Factfulness" that was published earlier this year.

PERFAS: Anna co-wrote "Factfulness" with her father-in-law Hans Rosling. Hans was a professor in Sweden and he grew frustrated with the misperceptions held by his students and that he found existed around the world. Anna and her husband Ola began helping Hans in their free time, trying to help illustrate a more accurate view of the world. They've been doing this work for 18 years now. Hans passed away last year, but Ola and Anna are continuing the work he started, both through their Gapminder organization and the publishing of their book. I asked Anna what they found when they looked at perceptions of poverty.

ROSLING RONNLUND: Poverty has halved over the last 20 years, which is pretty amazing. And we asked this question systematically to the general population in 14 countries and one of these countries is the US. And in the US only 5 percent got this question right.

PERFAS: Did you catch that? Worldwide, only 10 percent knew that extreme poverty has improved, and only 5 percent of Americans got that answer right. Anna said this was pretty fascinating. Just imagine the effects of a whole population of people that get these basic facts wrong. One effect being how we view the world.

ROSLING RONNLUND: People think that the world is actually much worse than it is, in many ways. We have something in the book that we call the gap instinct, and that is that people tend to think about the extremes. They tend to think about the poor and they tend to think about the rich and they forget about the huge majority of humanity living somewhere in between. Also, people seem to have a hard time understanding how much better things have actually become over the years. So if you look at the data sets from the World Bank and the UN and so on, and look at the longer timelines you can see that a lot of the sort of basic human conditions have improved. When we look at basic indicators like life expectancy or poverty or the ability to read and write and things like that, we can see that a lot of things have actually improved quite a lot in most places around the world.

PERFAS: You mentioned a couple reasons, but I'm just curious why people continue to think that no progress has been made. You know, whether it's poverty or some of these other things that you mentioned.

ROSLING RONNLUND: Yes.

PERFAS: Are we just skeptical or pessimistic or, what factors into that?

ROSLING RONNLUND: Most likely I think we have a tendency to notice negative stories over positive ones. Also around us, we very seldom see these long time trends because they are very... the global proportions are usually missed and the slow trends as well. So what we see are scattered stories of things going bad and those stories probably get stuck in our head. So when we're trying to think about the overview. Those are the ones we we pick from our sort of brain library.

PERFAS: So what have you and your team found to be effective ways in closing this perception gap?

ROSLING RONNLUND: We started from the other end, I would say, because we have tried to actually teach these things. We thought more or less that if we can provide people with the proper information they will go to look for the information and they will figure out and make wise decisions. When we started measuring systematically people seemed to be pretty pretty bad in most areas we were measuring, and that's when we figured out that there must be something else going on. Because most of the audiences we met were highly educated, extremely skilled people. So it's not something that has to do with intelligence or educational levels it seems. It seems like it's something with how the brain is actually handling information. What we noticed in these audiences was that they had a self perception that they knew all these things, because it's pretty basic. And when you think that you already know something, it's pretty hard to listen and relearn. So we actually realized that doing the test was a pretty good tool to have people get some some doubt about their own knowledge.

PERFAS: It's almost like you need people to recognize first that they don't know.

ROSLING RONNLUND: Yes.

PERFAS: And then once they realize they don't know then you can begin to make progress towards correcting the information.

ROSLING RONNLUND: Yes, because you don't want to, you don't want to learn something that you already think you know. Suddenly you had these whole skilled audiences... They had to deal with their own sort of shortcomings and we could comfort them and say, "Isn't it fascinating how our brain actually distorts the information we get?" It's not something you have to really struggle to learn. It's pretty easy. But you still need to open your brain and sort of accept new information coming in.

PERFAS: You have a book called "The Perils of Perception" and right on the cover you claim that we're wrong about nearly everything which is a pretty big accusation.

BOBBY DUFFY: I mean it that was the publishers as you can imagine the publishers like, love a scandalous title, in broad strokes. But it is, there's a lot of truth in it, that every single subject that we've looked at, the norm is for people, the average guess about social realities, to be very wrong.

PERFAS: Bobby Duffy is the director of the policy institute at King's College London, and worked with the Gapminder organization to complete the surveys that found how deeply rooted our misperceptions are around the world.

PERFAS: Let's talk about global poverty a little bit specifically. What have you found in your research to kind of be the reality versus the perception?

DUFFY: The vast majority of people actually think it's doubled or stay the same when it's, when it has in fact almost halved. So we've got this sense that it's going up, getting worse, when actually it's improved a lot. I mean there is UK academic called Max Roser who talks about the fact that you could have a headline every day for the past decade or more saying: "Good news, 137,000 people have moved out of extreme poverty today." And that, the problem with that is you don't really get those sorts of headlines. People don't really cover that in the news. It's much more about the tragedies rather than those stories of improvement.

PERFAS: Well, if we are making such big headway on reducing extreme poverty why do we act like we're not?

DUFFY: Yeah I mean, it goes back to what is... what are our brains drawn to? We literally edit out bad things in the past. When we think about the past, we forget the bad things, which makes us think worse of the present time.

PERFAS: Bobby brought up a really interesting study done by US academics that highlights this tendency to see the world through rose colored glasses. They interviewed people about their vacations. What they found is that people were really excited before their vacations, but would then feel let down or disappointed immediately after. But what was really interesting was the further in the past the vacation was, the better and happier the memories. We literally edit out the bad, Bobby says, so we just remember the beautiful sunset rather than the kids getting sick in the car. So how is that connected to our ideas about poverty? We tend to remember the world being less poor in the past and remember the past being much better than it was, which may make us think the present must be worse, even if it's actually much better. I asked Bobby, why is this a problem?

DUFFY: The danger with, that which is I think one of your focuses is, if people don't have that sense of progress, they can give up hope or sense of efficacy that they can actually change things. And that's really important. I think the danger is our natural tendency is to forget about progress.

PERFAS: Sometimes I wonder you know, is it really so bad that we have these misperceptions? If we think poverty is worse, wouldn't that motivate us to do more? But it almost sounds like it has the opposite impact.

DUFFY: It's a really really interesting point. What the experiments and literature shows on this is that in order to get people to donate a bit of money to a charity who's working with extreme poverty, then there's a very clear pattern of how do you get more donations. Which is first of all, you talk about the individual, not the scale of the problem. You don't talk about statistics at all. You personalize it with one person because that keeps it in an emotional reaction rather than a rational reaction and people give more in that emotional state. So there's some brilliant, again, experiment showing that if you show a picture and tell a story of one little girl you get more donations than talking about a tragedy affecting a million people just because it's a scale we can understand and it engages us emotionally. And even if you add one other person, so if you ask, if you try to raise money for two people rather than one person, the donations go down. The second part of that is the sadder you make it look, the sadder the face, the sadder the way everything looks or the story is told, the more people donate.

PERFAS: The problem with continuing to push the sadness button, as Bobby calls it, is that it turns people away from more active engagement. People give, but it's only to get it out of their mind. And it gives the perception that we're not making a difference. So what's the answer?

DUFFY: A bit of hope. And a bit of sense that we can change things and that what you're doing, what you're contributing to is improving things, is really important. And that's why negative misperceptions and thinking that everything is getting worse when it is not is really important to address. It is not about myth busting and just giving people lots more facts. It is about understanding the emotions and understanding the stories that people have created in their heads and where they've come from. Because if you just bombard people with facts it's misdiagnosing the issue and you're going to have limited impact on people's perception. So the misperception gap will continue if your only approach is to fire facts at people. You to engage on an emotional level as well.

MARK SUZMAN: The core value that Bill and Melinda have is that every human life has equal value and every person deserves the chance to a healthy and productive life.

PERFAS: Mark Suzman is the president of Global Policy and Advocacy at the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation. He is also their chief strategy officer. They have spent billions of dollars targeting global poverty over the years. I wanted to know what have they found to be effective ways in reducing poverty?

SUZMAN: We look at the very poorest that's the, defined roughly as, near the World Bank does this rather technical definition of means you live in the equivalent of $1.95 a day or less. But that means you actually cannot... the basic essentials. You barely get enough to eat for your family, you don't really have proper assets, often you can't send your kids to school. There are all sorts of challenges attached to that. And so our focus is can you break people out of that? It certainly doesn't mean they're rich, but it means that they've got some tools and opportunity to get to the next rung on the ladder. And that's where key tools like agriculture, I've mentioned because so many of the poor depend on agriculture and actually doesn't take a big push to help people become more self-sufficient. And sort of sell more crops at market and get more income and then other areas and the one we're most excited about is financial services for the poor. The mobile money revolution in some ways is much more exciting in the developing world than it is in the rich world. Where it's allowed us sort of leapfrogging over traditional banking and financial services. And that's been having a very big impact on the poor.

PERFAS: So when we talk about the perception side of it, why do you think so many Americans' perceptions of world poverty is so off? Do you feel like it makes your work harder, like knowing that there's a lot of people in the world that think progress isn't being made?

SUZMAN: Oh, it makes our work much much harder. Because you're part of... our pitch through our own money, but also we're always trying to say here in the United States you know, here's why you should support the great work that USAID does, or why the United States should be supporting big international institutions like UNICEF or the World Bank that do great work. And you know, often the public perception is, well why should we do that for foreigners? A) It doesn't do any good because poverty is always with us and getting worse. And then that gets attached to a bunch of other perceptions which are not fully correct about... it all goes in the money of corrupt dictators and and so on. And if people don't believe progress is happening, they're very unwilling to put resources into things that are supposed to make life better in the future. I think the core reason in some ways is well two reasons. One, domestically in the US we know and this is a sort of separate discussion but it's been a tough 20 years for the American middle class. And so you know, if people don't perceive their own life is getting better in any significant way, it's tough to mentally think and go out and say here's why you know, we care about or are interested in what's happening outside. And you also extrapolate and think well, if we're getting worse we're part of some bigger global problem. And the second is just access to information. You don't get access to a lot of those factual stories in a good way that's accessible. And to make it accessible you really need to have more than numbers. You need really powerful stories attached to those numbers.

PERFAS: Mark shared a story that he felt captures the power of how to persuade people, but also the risks. They were creating a video series to highlight some of the work they're doing in Africa. One video highlighted a dynamic female farmer in Mozambique. She was talking about all the support she received that helped her get better seed, helped her market her produce, and then make enough to send her kids to school. Using a dial test to measure viewer reactions, Mark said they could tell the viewers were really inspired and were thinking, "This is exactly what we want to support." And then the video changed.

SUZMAN: And then right at the end of the story, they were saying well gosh, you're doing so well, what are your aspirations for the future? What do you think? And she had this huge smile and said, "God you know, I have no idea what the future will be, but if I've got my kids in school and everything is going well, who knows, maybe one day I'll even buy a car." And at that time the dial testing dropped through the floor. It kind of shocked everyone we go, wow what happened? And then we realized, well actually what people were very excited about, positive about, was helping support somebody you know, putting their kids through school, doing these things in very hard circumstances. But hey, if they want to buy a car, I'm struggling with my car payments here in the United States. Why should my government money go, my taxpayer dollars go to help her get a car, it should rather help me get a car. And so I think you get that tension there. That's really about, so how do you have these motivating aspirational stories that connect but how do you balance that with the reality of people thinking about their own domestic situation and what they need too.

PERFAS: For you personally, what do you find to be the most rewarding part of kind of the work that you do?

SUZMAN: Well it's the connection one step removed to those people in the field. Whenever I get out into the countries we work in and you get out into you know, a rural village and you see these sort of kids getting access to health care that they otherwise wouldn't have had, or you talk to some of these smallholder farmers who you know, are able to get more productivity and put their kids in school instead of making them work the land. And I'm very fortunate that I get a chance to go and see that directly. You know most people don't get to do that. And you know it it makes it much more real. And then you really, you're able to sort of connect that back and say actually we're building partnerships that help drive that kind of progress forward. So maybe some future versions of virtual reality or other things like that are going to help other people feel those kind of tangible stories firsthand without having to actually make the trip.

PETER FORD: My name's Peter Ford. I work for the Christian Science Monitor in Paris. I'm based in Paris and travel as the senior global affairs correspondent.

PERFAS: Peter started writing for the Monitor in 1985 as a freelancer in Central America covering Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica. He was then in Buenos Aires, the Middle East, Moscow, Paris, then Beijing, and now he's back in Paris, but still travelling often on assignment. Given his vast experience, I wanted to get his perspective on covering issues related to poverty.

FORD: I don't think it's ever been the specific and exclusive focus of any particular reporting trip I've made or project I've worked on, but of course when I was in Madagascar last year reporting on efforts to prevent and forestall famine there, that clearly had a lot to do with poverty because you know, naturally the hungriest people in the world tend to be the poorest. But in my time in different countries, I've seen all kinds of poverty and written about it either indirectly or directly and it manifests itself in very different ways. I mean, in Russia for example, is what one might call genteel poverty. These are people who know once upon a time had been prosperous under the Soviet Union, but they found themselves completely ruined after the collapse of communism by economic and financial crises that were well out of their control. And so they were coping. They were extremely poor but they were coping and remembering the old days. Now of course that has political implications for the governments. At the other end of the spectrum if you like, there's the absolute and very obvious poverty that I came across in India although I wasn't actually in India to write about poverty I was writing about the Indian elections a few years ago. But clearly, poverty has a big impact on the elections and poverty is always a political issue.

PERFAS: Do you think there's aspects of poverty that the media doesn't cover or doesn't show or things you saw when you were there in person that surprised you?

FORD: I'm not sure I'd say that I've been surprised, but I think it's important to realize, and there's something that struck me in all sorts of situations, is just how disenfranchising poverty often is. I mean how poverty and being poor makes you powerless. Because when you're poor, especially if you're really really poor in the sort of way people are sometimes in the developing world, the question of where your next meal is coming from is absolutely all-consuming. I mean it doesn't really leave you the time or the energy for anything else. So you might otherwise be participating in a community or getting involved in politics or engaged in a social movement campaigning for for better rights. But when you very very hungry it's really not the top of your priorities. So in that way poverty suits the interests of the ruling classes in a lot of countries. It's clear that in a lot of the world poverty is is a systemic problem that has to do with vast disparities of wealth and inequality. It's not just something that happens.

PERFAS: How does the Monitor cover poverty? Like what are things that you look for try to see when you report such stories?

FORD: Monitor coverage, when Monitor journalists are covering poverty or dealing with poor people, what we try to emphasize, what I try to emphasize, is the humanity and the dignity of the people that were dealing with the writing about, even in the depths of life threatening poverty. It is astonishing. At least I found it astonishing, how very very poor people do maintain their dignity in the most appalling circumstances that, you know, you and I would have a hard time imagining. I mean some people obviously, you find some people who've been beaten down and hopeless they've lost faith in themselves. But that's not the case for most people and I think it's important that this sort of coverage reminds readers that they are very privileged and as one might put it, there but for the grace of God go I.

FORD: Do you have any stories or reporting experiences that were particularly powerful to you or helped you understand poverty in a new way?

FORD: Well I think the trip I took to Madagascar last year, it was the only time that I've ever reported in sub-Saharan Africa. That struck me very forcibly. There I was coming across people who were living on the edge anyway. These were poor people in remote rural communities who are just scraping by even under normal circumstances. And what I realized and understood was just how catastrophically and how easily they could be pushed over the precipice into starvation by something as fundamental as the weather and something as chancy as the weather. And it's not always natural phenomena that that push people over the edge from just getting by. They could be living in frugal conditions, but economic or financial conditions or changes at the top can throw the ordinary but poor people living an ordinary but poor life into disaster very very easily.

FORD: As a reporter, what do you think is the most important thing to communicate with our readers or listeners about poverty?

FORD: That is not inevitable. I think that's really, that's really the most important message. That you know, there's this, sometimes this rather Victorian approach that the poor are always with us. But poverty is not what one might call a passive state. It's an active imposition by other people who are not poor. By governments, by neighbors, by fellow citizens who aren't doing enough, frankly. I mean, it's the responsibility of those of us who are not in such poverty to do something, to help those who are and to ensure the sorts of social justice and the sorts of social policies that are required to bring people out of poverty because it can be done. I mean there's really, there's more than enough money in this world. It's just a question of how it's shared out.

PERFAS: There's more than enough money in this world, it's just a question of how it shared out. It reminds me a bit of something we learned in Episode 3 when Alex Nowrasteh talked about job creation. We no longer live in a zero sum world. We can create more wealth and opportunities. It's not us versus other people, in that sense. We can all have the resources we need to live and pursue our livelihoods. Looking at poverty, how do we help change the dynamic? Like Mr. Rogers says, look for the helpers. And when you look at poverty issues, there are a lot of helpers. And it is making a difference. We've made huge progress but there's still more to be done.

This week's newsletter (sign up if you haven't already) I've included some resources for you. The Gates Foundation's annual Goalkeepers Report does a great job explaining both the progress that's been achieved as well as some of the challenges that still remain. You can also find links to the Monitor's famine series that Peter talked about, where you went to Madagascar to report on the famine striking the country. If you need the newsletter sign up link or want to send it to your friends, you can find it at csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps.

And a thank you to all the people who made this episode happened: my producer Dave Scott; our studio engineers Morgan Anderson, Ian Blaquiere, Tory Silver, Jeff Turton, and Tim Malone; original sound design by Noel Flatt and Morgan Anderson; and a special thanks to all my volunteer editors: Mark Sappenfield, Molly Jackson, Mark Trumbull, Ben Frederick, Em Okrepkie.

And I'm Samantha Laine Perfas. Thanks for listening to Perception Gaps.

Copyright: This podcast was produced by The Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2018.

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