The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has recently proclaimed 2019 to be the “best year ever” in human history.
This bold claim is built on facts such as rising life expectancy at birth, reduced child mortality rates, growing literacy levels, increased access to electricity and piped water and our ability to fight major diseases. Indeed, the work of numerous scholars, including that of the Our World in Data team (ourworldindata.org) based at Oxford University, provides ample evidence of global successes in relation to a host of development indicators.
Based on such evidence, bestselling authors like Steven Pinker have claimed that in relation to health, prosperity, safety, peace, and happiness, humanity is much better off today than ever before in history.
Indeed, despite considerable challenges we continue to struggle with (e.g. climate change, extreme poverty and various types of inequalities), we must not overlook the numerous developmental successes that the world has achieved in recent decades.
And in appreciating “what works” in development, we must continue to better understand not just how “problems” are identified and solved, but also the types of measures that we choose to undertake and how the desired goals of such interventions are achieved.
In doing so, we need to honestly answer numerous questions: How can we best identify the most urgent types of problems that exist? What would amount to durable solutions to these problems? How can we set realistic goals? What methods must we apply to measure and evaluate the achievements of our efforts?
How long does it take to achieve a desired outcome? What is the actual pace of change we are witnessing? What are the financial and other costs involved? How many, and which groups of, people are benefiting from our efforts?
There is often an obsession with celebrating universal blueprints and not appreciating local (and sometimes short-term) achievements that cannot be scaled-up or easily replicated elsewhere.
The agents of the State and other development actors must also ask themselves whether their activities contribute towards positive changes in society that can be sustained over a considerable period of time.
The foremost issue of our time, and one that has featured prominently in media coverage over the past year, is that of climate change, which threatens to disrupt many of our past achievements related to human development.
Through her activism aimed at getting political leaders to act on the basis of available scientific evidence, Greta Thunberg has become a role model for millions of people, especially the world’s youth. Thus, while celebrating our successes in 2019, we must thus also be mindful of the fact that many of our achievements have not been equally replicated in all arenas of development. Happy New Year!