“Extreme poverty is on the way out”

By Hans Zomer, Director of Dochas, the Irish Development NGO platform. Opinions expressed in the blog do not reflect the position of CONCORD.

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This blog originally appeared in the Huffington Post
We live in an age of mass media. Magazines, television, books, radio and social media provide us with a constant flow of information, news, entertainment and education. We now have access to information that previous generations could only dream of.
Google’s Eric Schmidt famously claimed that every two days we now produce as much information as mankind did over the centuries since the dawn of civilisation up until 2003. The US supermarket chain Walmart, for instance, collects information of the more than 1 million customer transactions it handles every hour, to spot changes in consumer behaviour.
Big data helps researchers identify macro trends by looking at micro interactions. And this ability has enormous potential to find new solutions to global problems too. Google’s flu trend, for instance, uses the knowledge it has of people using their search engine to look up flu symptoms, to spot outbreaks of the disease and alert the health authorities.
And aid agencies are already using “big data” to predict food crises and they are starting to use data generated via mobile phones to help target their work in emergencies. Big data can even help protect trees.

More information does not mean more informed
While companies and NGOs have more data on hand, their clients and supporters are not necessarily better served by the availability of big data. For starters, much of the information we receive is not really informative – think cute kitten videos and urban myths spreading over social media like wild fire.
Research shows we get our information about the world primarily from our peers and from the media. If media coverage of large parts of that world is confined to crises and catastrophes, it builds up a skewed picture of the world as a vast place of suffering and corruption, urgently in need of aid workers or soldiers to sort it out.
This simple narrative is self-perpetuating, and it is misleading. Trapped in a narrative that feeds our existing beliefs, we are not becoming better informed, or making better decisions.
Research by Dóchas found that more than half of the people in Ireland do not think that Africa is any better off than it was 20 years ago – despite massive evidence of huge economic growth on the continent. Similar research in the USA found that a whopping 67 percent of U.S. citizens thought that extreme poverty increased over the last three decades, when in fact the portion of the world’s population living in poverty dropped from 52 percent in 1983 to 21 just percent in 2013 over that period.
50 percent of American adults believed that the number of child deaths had risen since 1990, while 35 percent think deaths caused by HIV/AIDS have increased over the last five years. In reality, the number of global fatalities for both has dropped over these periods.
Our media are not helping
Our media emphasis on news – news that focuses on the dramatic and the sudden – means that we pick up on the headlines, but not on the bigger trends. And that ultimately does not help us. For through globalisation, our lives are inextricably linked to those of the billions of others with whom we share this planet. And in such a context, we should expect that our media give us the information and the tools that we need to play our role as global citizens to the full.
If our media do not report important facts – such as that many African economies have been among the fastest growing regions in the world – it is likely that we will miss out on business opportunities. If no news reporter tells us that the past ten years have been the most affluent in the entire human history, then what does that do to our perspective on current affairs?
It may not be ‘news’, but the fact that over the past three decades the percentage of people in the world who live in extreme poverty has decreased by more than half surely should be common knowledge. As should the fact that through tax dodging of multinationals, Africa ‘gives’ us six times more money than it receives in overseas aid.
For these reasons, and to bust some of the myths that exist about developing countries, we have now started a new information service: “The World’s Best News” (available onFacebook, Tumblr, Instagram and Flipboard).
This is a news service with stories that do not make the mainstream news, but that are equally important, and often very surprising. This service is our attempt to challenge group think about foreign aid and to empower people to make informed decisions about the world we live in.