Guide How Things Were; How Things Are

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The opposite is true. In fact, the share of people living in extreme poverty across the world has been declining for two centuries and in the last 20 years this positive development has been faster than ever before see our entry on global poverty. For the recent era it doesn't even matter what poverty line you choose, the share of people below any poverty line has fallen see here. There are some people who answered the question correctly: every fifth person knows that poverty is falling.

The countries I marked with a star are those that were a low-income or lower-middle-income countries a generation ago in In these poorer countries more people understand how global poverty has changed. People in richer countries on the other hand — in which the majority of the population escaped extreme poverty some generations ago — have a very wrong perception about what is happening to global poverty. We are not just wrong about global poverty. Here again the data is very clear.

The child mortality rate in both the less- and least-developed countries has halved in the last 20 years. The survey once more shows that most people are not aware of this. And what greater achievement has humanity ever achieved than making it more and more likely that children survive the first, vulnerable years of their lives and sparing parents the sadness of losing their babies?

And just as with knowledge about extreme poverty, the share of uninformed people is much higher in the rich countries of the world. So is our work at Our World in Data needed?

This survey shows that few Senegalese or Kenyans will learn something new; but if you have some friends in the US or Japan you will probably help them if you share our work. Misperceptions about specific trends reinforces general discontent about how the world is changing.

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The widespread ignorance about these truly important changes in the world feeds into a general discontent about how the world is changing. What should we make of the fact that many perceive the world to be stagnating or even declining in global health or poverty while we are in fact achieving the most rapid improvements in our history in these very same aspects? First, this is simply sad. It means that we think worse of the world than we should.

We think more poorly than we should about the time we are living in, and we think more poorly than we should about what people around the world are achieving right now. Second it makes clear that we are doing a terrible job at understanding and communicating what is happening in the world. Particularly in rich countries the education systems and media are failing to convey an accurate perspective on how the world is changing — arguably one of the main expectations we should have of them.

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Our perception of how the world is changing matters for what we believe is possible in the future. More than half of the people expect stagnation or that things will be getting worse. Fortunately, the places in which people currently have the worst living conditions are more optimistic about what is possible in the coming years! On the whole, the findings from the surveys are clear: we do not only believe that the world is stagnating or declining, we also expect that this perceived stagnation or decline will continue into the future.

This pessimism about what is possible for the world matters politically. The few optimists on the other hand will want to see the necessary changes for the improvements they are expecting. Finally the survey suggests that there is a connection between our perception of the past and our hope for the future. Those that were most pessimistic about the future tended to have the least basic knowledge on how the world has changed.

At the other end of the spectrum, those who had very good knowledge about how the world has changed were the most optimistic about the changes that we can achieve in the next 15 years. This is a correlation and as we know, correlation does not imply causation.

Unfortunately I am not aware of a study that looked into this question. Of course no one can know how the future turns out and there is nothing that would make the progress we have seen in recent decades continue inevitably and not every global development pessimist is ill-informed. But what we do know from these surveys is that these two views go together: Those who are pessimistic are much more likely to have little understanding about what is happening in the world.

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