The last eighteen months have shattered any pretense that global development can be taken as given. As ‘impatient optimist’ Bill Gates declared “The COVID-19 pandemic has not only stopped progress — it's pushed it backwards.” Beyond health, the COVID-19 crisis increased global poverty as well as national level inequality and cut into education.
But it is a sign of the rapid progress that the world was making that even after this catastrophic shock, the estimates are that the number of people living at the $1.90/day poverty line in 2020 may rise back to the level of only five years prior. Over the longer term, for all of the tragedies of the last twelve months, the halting reversal we’ve seen in global measures of the spread of liberal democracy in the past decade, and the decline in biodiversity and rising global temperatures of the past half century, global progress has been considerable—and progress here in America at least stutteringly positive.
That is not, of course, what people think. The majority of Americans have believed the crime rate has been going up for decades even while the rate is still dramatically below its level of thirty years ago. Two thirds of Americans think global poverty has doubled over the past twenty years; on the $1.90/day measure it has halved. Most people think child deaths have risen worldwide; they have declined at the fastest rate ever. And talking to my daughters’ friends suggests young people share this belief of a country and planet rapidly descending into misery.
So I decided to write a short book about the state of America and the world in historical context, aimed at the middle school set. It’s called Your World Better: Global Progress and What You Can Do About It. (Some might hear echoes of my earlier book Getting Better—it is a source, but this is a very different text.) The book looks at America and the world and how they have changed since readers’ parents and grandparents were young, covering trends in health, money, home, school, work, violence, discrimination, democracy, happiness, and the environment. It talks about the things that have gotten better, the sometimes-intensifying challenges that remain, and what readers can do about them.
Your World Better is optimistic, but it doesn’t shy away from the considerable problems we face: from inequality through discrimination and depression to climate change and infectious threats. It is meant to encourage kids to help improve their world: tip them from hopelessness toward action, not into complacency. I hope it gets the balance right.
The PDF of Your World Better is available to download on my blog for free. Or you can buy a kindle version for 99 cents or a hard copy for $8.10 on Amazon. Any author royalties from those sales will be donated to UNICEF. However you access the book, Amazon and Goodreads reviews are very gratefully received. I hope you’ll share news of Your World Better with any families with middle schoolers you know, and that at the very least it might spark a few conversations and a bit of hope for the future after a year where that has been in short supply.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.