News junkies might be forgiven for concluding that 2015 marked a new low point in the welfare of the planet’s 7.4 billion people and the general condition of the civilisations they have created.
For many people, especially the estimated 60 million refugees displaced by the wars raging in the Middle East and Africa, the last 12 months were filled with grief, hardship and uncertainty.
Statistics on the plight of refugees displaced by conflict clearly show that the circumstances of millions of people remain miserable, with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimating that one in every 122 people in the world are now recognised as displaced – the highest ratio since the Second World War.
Human misery indexes were stoked mainly by the world’s four largest military conflicts that together claimed at least 140,000 lives in the 11 months to the end of November.
Although these trends may give cause for despair, fascinating data published by the World Health Organisation and the World Bank shows the living standards of most people have actually improved in the last year.
We’re living longer than ever
Perhaps the most inspiring human achievement of the past 25 years has been the sharp rise in average life expectancy in the world’s poorest continent, Africa.
Between 1990 and 2000, the average life expectancy of a person born in Africa was stuck at 50 years.
Since then it has improved to 58, with the average for African women hitting 60 for the first time in 2013.
Globally, the average life span of humans rose to 71 in 2013 from 66 in 2000.
In 1990 almost 12.7 million children across the world died before they reached five years of age.
In the year to the end of June 2015, WHO data shows that slightly less than 5.9 million died.
Equally significant is the fact that child mortality rates have at least halved on every continent since 1990.
We’re getting healthier
Preventable diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are estimated to have killed almost four million people in 2015.
By any measure that is too many, but it is less than half the number who died from such diseases in 1990.
Africa accounts for most deaths from these preventable diseases, however mortality rates across that continent have fallen consistently since the turn of the millennium.
Data published by the World Health Organisation show that annual deaths caused by malaria have fallen to about 500,000 this year, from 779,000 in 2007.
Tuberculosis remains a bigger problem, although its lethal impacts have fallen sharply since 2000 when the WHO mounted a 15-year program to control the disease globally.
It is estimated that around 1.1 million people are likely to have died from tuberculosis in 2015.
Although tuberculosis is one of the world’s leading preventable killers, a concerted international focus on the disease resulted in a halving of the number of deaths in the past 15 years.
“In all, effective diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis saved an estimated 43 million lives between 2000 and 2014,” the WHO stated in a report published earlier this year.
Africa may be on the cusp of an investment boom
One of the big drivers of development in Africa and Asia in the past decade-and-a-half has been the surge in foreign private investment in both regions.
Since the turn of the millennium investors in OECD countries such as Australia doubled the capital they channel into developing countries.
Almost $US2.5 trillion each year was invested by commercial firms based in western countries in 2015 and this is expected to double over the next five years.
The bottom line, according to the World Bank, is that improvements in the health and demographic profile of sub-Saharan Africa make it a potential boom region of the next three decades.
“While the global working age population was at 66 per cent in 2012, parts of Africa and Asia are seeing a surge in their working age populations, and countries in these regions have an opportunity for greater prosperity and higher living standards,” the World Bank stated in a recent report.
“Sub-Saharan Africa will account for more than half of the world’s working-age population growth through 2050.”
The year of a ‘historic drop’ in poverty
The World Bank estimated that the proportion of the global population living in “extreme poverty” fell to 9.6 per cent.
Although this equates to a massive 702 million people, it is still a big improvement on 1990 when 37 per cent of the world’s humans were so classified.
The World Bank’s income measure for “extreme poverty” is controversial however, because it is set at only $US1.90 a day.
Ethiopia’s booming economy
This might sound unbelievable, but Ethiopia is forecast to become the world’s fastest-growing economy in 2016, after expanding consistently in the past decade.
The World Bank predicts that Ethiopia’s $US55 billion economy will grow by 10.2 per cent in the year ahead.
Although the average median incomes of Ethiopians continue to lag behind most other African countries, the famine-prone nation is rapidly closing the gap.
Many other African economies are slated to grow rapidly over the next decade, most particularly Kenya, which has become a regional hub for shipping, telecommunications and financial services.
Kenya is attracting heavy investment from global technology-driven firms such as Google, IBM and General Electric.
The African operations of General Electric, which now employs 2200 people and generates annual revenue of more than $US3 billion, are headquartered in its capital, Nairobi.