Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Mind the Gap!

Last year we blogged about Swedish medical doctor and public health researcher Hans Rosling. Although Rosling is a well-respected teacher of international public health at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, he's well-known for two other reasons: his role in co-founding the non-profit organisation Gapminder, and a stunning presentation he delivered to the Technology, Entertainment Design (TED) symposium in California, which became an internet sensation.

Last evening I had the privilege to attend a lecture by Rosling, co-organised by the United Nations Economic Commission on Europe (UNECE) and the Permanent Mission of Sweden in Geneva. (If there was ever a country to appreciate statistics, it would be Sweden don't you think. Who knew they have a "Swedish Statistician of the Year?" ;-) )

If you weren't previously familiar with Rosling's entertaining and slightly 'nutty professor' style of delivery, the attraction of a one hour lecture at the end of the working day on the topic of 'the value of statistics' might conceivably be lost on you - especially as the earnest chaps at UNECE thought they'd provide the answer in the lecture invitation:

"Statistics allow us to measure and demonstrate progress, providing evidence for effective decision-making about how and where to target development programs."
Fortunately, the fun of the journey is in the getting there. Rosling's talk was indeed fascinating. And he was visibly enjoying himself as he gently pulled the legs of various important Swedish eminent persons and statisticians along the way.

Rosling also made some serious points. Not least of these, he showed through the graphics and animations Gapminder has developed to display statistical trends in development and public health that many of the assumptions held in the 'Western' world' are - and I'm quoting Rosling here - "bullshit". Rosling observed that many of the premises students accept date from when their teachers first read a textbook. He asked his students, for instance, what distinguished family structure in OECD countries from that in developing countries. The answer he was given: rich world = long lifespan, small families; developing world = short lifespan, large families.

The problem is, this is not true. Many parts of the so-called developing world radically differ from this model. Moreover, Singapore - a so-called developing country - has lower child mortality than Sweden. Vietnam's public health indicators put it approximately where the United States was when the Vietnam War ended. And South Korea's progress in the last forty years has been nothing short of stunning.

So life is getting better for some. But not all. What is striking from Rosling's talk is the level of disparity in wealth, not just between countries or regions but within countries. While around 20 percent of South Africa's population, for instance, has a standard of living similar to that of people in rich Western European countries, a significant proportion of its people have a similar standard of living to Uganda. Latin America has massive disparity in wealth, both within the region and within countries.

While recent decades have seen an increasing proportion of the world's people pulled out of abject poverty, Rosling observed that absolute numbers of the poorest people - those living on less than a dollar a day - has remained about the same. And these people may be living nearer to you than you think, for instance if you live in Eastern Europe, or Latin America or the Middle East.

This has big implications for security, not so much of the traditional national kind, but of the human kind. In my view, it perhaps isn't any coincidence that some of the most violent societies on earth - think armed robbery, murder, illicit gun possession - are among the most socioeconomically unequal.

Rosling raised another interesting point, one that doesn't arise in his TED video: rapid development to date has been based on use of fossil fuels. How will a world trying to respond to climate change reconcile these apparently conflicting imperatives? Rosling is an optimist - he notes how inefficiently resources are used at present, citing the huge cost of agricultural subsidies in many OECD countries, for instance. If these were to be reallocated "less stupidly", he argues it would make a huge difference to the world in developmental terms.

To me, there are other dimensions though, some of which link up to concerns in arms control. At present, compelling alternatives to fossil fuel-use to drive growth and development are in short supply not just for financial reasons, but because the technology doesn't exist. Even assuming that technology can lead to new alternative sources of green energy if enough resources are thrown at key problems, it's going to take time for these to come onstream.

In the meantime, nuclear power is an increasingly compelling alternative - as was clear from discussions on civil uses of nuclear technology at last week's NPT PrepCom. Environmental concerns to one side, there are major non-proliferation challenges ahead. So, Rosling's talk provides much to think about for arms controllers as well as development and statistics boffins.

John Borrie

You can have a go with Gapminder software here. If you had been wondering when Hans Rosling's amazing Gapminder data visualization tools would ever emerge from 'beta', it seems they have been sold to Google, which intends, he said, to put them on the internet for free eventually. Good on you Google... Now make it happen, and for Macs as well as PCs please!