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Uh, didn't we fix poverty?

Experts tell us that the world is not only a better place than it was two hundred years ago, but continues to improve. Charts from researchers at the University of Oxford show how many of each hundred people worldwide were in extreme poverty, had basic education, could read, lived in a democracy, had been vaccinated, or died before the age of five from 1820 to 2015:

Each area shows dramatic and continuous improvements. So, it’s puzzling for the researchers also to find that more than nine out of ten people do not think that the world is getting better. They blame this on media coverage of events such as plane crashes, terrorism attacks, and natural disasters. But is this fair? We know from their own statistics that most people are now educated. Are nine out of ten people really so naïve as to overlook massive social improvements during their own lifetime because they read about bad things that happen in the world?

Statistics are inherently tricky. Personally, I’ve held a grudge against them ever since a school career assessment concluded I should become a statistician. At the time, this didn’t seem like a thrilling ambition — could any job possibly be more boring? And how could you change the world with numbers? Now, having come across people who do exactly that, I am coming around to the idea (although it’s too late in the day for me to make career choices). Statistics can be exciting, leading you to real human stories, and powerful, helping you make a difference. They can also be misleading and dangerous.

The process of observing the world and turning those observations first into data, then into information, then into knowledge, and finally into wisdom, is fraught with difficulty and open to challenge at every stage. Statistical methods are not easily understood by the layman and can be used in arcane ways to create multiple versions of any truth, including versions that seem opposite to one another — they are like a lens, that sharpens your view of one point in a picture while blurring the rest of it. A good example is poverty.

A press release from the World Bank in 2018 picked up on the statistics above, declaring with pride that the percentage of people living in extreme poverty globally fell to a new low of 10% in 2015. Compared to 95% in 1820, this is impressive. However, the World Bank also finds that poverty reduction has slowed or even reversed for many nations, and the disclaimer at the end of their statement acknowledges that “Access to good schools, health care, electricity, safe water, and other critical services remains elusive for many people, often determined by socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity, and geography. The multidimensional view — wherein other aspects such as education, access to basic utilities, health care, and security are included — reveals a world in which poverty is a much broader, more entrenched problem. The share of poor according to a multidimensional definition that includes consumption, education, and access to basic utilities is approximately 50 percent higher than when relying solely on monetary poverty. Moreover, for those who have been able to move out of poverty, progress is often temporary: Economic shocks, food insecurity and climate change threaten to rob them of their hard-won gains and force them back into poverty. It will be critical to find ways to tackle these issues as we make progress toward 2030.”

Other research supports this more pessimistic view. I open my forthcoming book Supercommunities by doing the sums, to find that 30 years from now 34% of people on the planet will be living in a "fragile context" (think violent conflict, forced displacement, natural disaster) and a further 10% will be economically fragile even though they do not live in a fragile context. We can reasonably assume that by 2050 nearly half the global population may be living on some form of knife edge. This is a very different story to the chart above. Does the rise in fragile living mean that in some way we have changed direction, back in certain respects towards 1820?

It is hard to answer such questions definitively using statistics, since multidimensional fragility is a new concept, and at this time only a few years of data have been gathered and analysed. This shouldn't deter us from trying to do something about 2050 in 2020. It certainly didn't deter innovators in 1820 - textile manufacturer Robert Owen spent most of his fortune on an experimental socialistic community, while the Quaker chocolate makers Fry, Cadbury, and Rowntree were dedicated as much to philanthropy as to business - in fact, they chose the confectionery business out of conscience. Similarly in 1920, the young Henry Ford saw improving the lot of his workers as inseparable from improving the efficiency of his factories. He grew less socially minded with age, but still gave away about a third of his income. Compare this with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the world's richest person with a net worth of more than US$117 billion, whose charitable history has “remained largely a mystery” and who recently declined to sign the philanthropic Giving Pledge commitment.

The argument of Supercommunities is that fragility is best cured at local level, by building communities that work towards an antifragile future for their members by taking ownership of their capitals, their assets, and their members' wellness. Ownership in this sense is not the extractive model of globalising neoliberal economics but rather about stewarding and responsibility. Communities across the world have the means to reduce risk for their members. All that they need is a structured approach - and for stakeholders in local assets to have their hearts in the right place. If this means building a local alternative to Amazon, well, why not? Innovators of the past were inspired by social issues to create great businesses. Perhaps there are aspects of returning to 1820 that we can learn from.

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