To the casual observer, it looks like the world is in a pretty bad place right now. Take a look at the front pages, and you’ll be faced with tales of woe: Brexit, Trump, the rise of the far right, and looming environmental disaster.
I believe, however, that we’re very lucky to live in the 21st century. By historical standards, we live in an unparalleled age of peace, prosperity, security and good health. I’m glad to have been born when I was (and given the chance I would have preferred to be born in 2018).
Don’t get me wrong – the world is far from perfect. Political instability is a real danger, wars continue across the Middle East and Africa, and climate change threatens our very existence. But by pretty much every observable metric we have, we’ve got it better than any era in human history.
One of the most basic ways to measure the state of the world is life expectancy - putting our more exciting hopes and dreams aside for a moment, surely our main goal as humans is to stay alive. And over the last 200 years or so, our success in this area has improved beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations. In 1543, life expectancy in the UK was 34 years. By 1800, we’d just about cracked 40. Since then, life expectancy has more than doubled to 81 years, a remarkable achievement after centuries of little change. And it’s not just here in the UK that we’ve seen this pattern – since 1900, global life expectancy has doubled. Perhaps most significantly, child mortality has also plummeted. In 1800, 43% of children didn’t live to see their 5th birthday. In 2015, this was down to 4%.
We’re also living much higher-quality lives than ever before. Since 1980, the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty has fallen from 44% to less than 10%. Literacy rates have roughly quadrupled from 21% to 85% since 1900, and since 1998 the number of school-age children not receiving an education fell from 109 million to 60 million, despite a massive increase in global population.
I could go on and on (by all accounts the world is also becoming more peaceful and democratic) but the message is clear: humanity has made great progress in making a better world over the last two centuries.
This is good news for charities, as the public are most likely to be optimistic about the future of a problem if they feel that they’ve already seen an improvement in it in the past.
This is illustrated by data from nfpSynergy’s Charity Awareness Monitor (CAM). We asked the general public to score a series of global problems based on how much they had improved over the last 20 years, and how much they thought they will improve over the next 20 years.
Figure 1: How problems are perceived to have improved vs how much they are expected to improve
As you can see from the graph above, there’s a clear link between thinking something has gotten better and thinking it will get better in the future.
There’s a massive opportunity here for charities. By showing the public that progress has been made in their areas of work, charities can convince the public that they are able to make a real difference and are therefore worth supporting.
The problem, however, is that the public already have an unduly pessimistic and unrealistic view of the world and the problems that face it. Take poverty, for example. As mentioned earlier in this article, global extreme poverty has fallen tremendously in recent decades. However, over half (55%) of the UK public think that it has in fact increased.
This is no great surprise given our media landscape. News outlets are obsessed with short-term negative stories, meaning that the key positive shifts in our quality of life – which tend to happen in the long-term – are almost completely ignored. Fundraising appeals can also make this problem worse; most of us are accustomed to a yearly bombardment of ‘poverty porn’ from TV adverts that show desolate scenes of starvation in distant countries.
The challenge then for the charity sector is to try to turn this around. The focus needs to be on proving impact and highlighting the ways that humanity has solved seemingly impossible problems, rather than showing how far we still have to go. Beneficiaries and front-line workers should be used to communicate this message, leveraging the unique experiences that they possess.
The world is changing for the better at an incredible rate. It’s time to make sure the public know it and encourage them to play their part through the charity sector.
All human development statistics in this blog come from ‘Our World in Data’ (https://ourworldindata.org).