Even the Developing World Is Experiencing Pronoia

(excerpted from "Glory in the Highest," an essay in the revised and expanded edition of Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia)

In the developing world, too many children are suffering terribly. On the other hand, fewer and fewer are suffering terribly every year. In 2006, UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund) reported that the death rate among young children had declined dramatically since 1960. Back then, 184 of every 1,000 kids expired before age five. More recently, the number is 72 per 1,000.

Everyone in the developing world is living longer, too, according to a study published in 2005 by Noble Prize-winning economist Gary Becker. He reported that between 1960 and 2000, life expectancy in the poorest nations on the planet increased from 41 to 64 years.

This miraculous progress has happened in part because the world's wealth has been steadily increasing. In a blog he writes on The New York Times website (), economist Steve Radelet reported that one of the most crucial shifts in human history began around 1980. The number of people living in poverty began to diminish then, and has continued to do so ever since. He waxed dramatic: "That's right: After rising steadily since the beginning of time, the number of people in the world living in absolute poverty has fallen by nearly one-third in less than three decades."

The World Bank issued a report in late 2008 that differed slightly in its details, but confirmed the general trend. It said that the number of people surviving on less than $1.25 per day had dropped by 500 million since 1981, even though the world's population increased by over two billion during that time. A United Nations' Human Development Report released in 2004 measured the progress from yet another angle, revealing that real per capita income in the developing world had more than doubled since 1975.

A further reason for the sharp reduction in child mortality has been improved medical treatments. These include immunizations against measles, rehydration therapy to combat diarrhea, vitamin A supplementation, and the widespread use of bed nets to foil mosquitoes bearing malaria.

Measles has been one of the most virulent diseases for children in Africa and Asia. But it's easily preventable through vaccination, which is why, in 2001, public health organizations launched the Measles Initiative, a campaign to provide mass vaccination. Since their work began, more than 600 million children have gotten the precious injections, and the death rate from measles has dropped 74 percent globally and 89 percent in Africa.

Of all the world's parasitic diseases, malaria is the deadliest. In second place is black fever, which takes 500,000 lives every year, mostly in India and Africa. In the 1960s, researchers identified the drug paromomyocin as an effective treatment against black fever, but pharmaceutical companies refused to make it. Why? There was little profit in the enterprise, since most victims were poor people. Forty years later, a not-for-profit drug company began doing business, and one of its first actions was to resurrect the use of paromomyocin. The Institute for One World Health has now mass-­produced the life-saver, and offers it at a low price.

There's still much work to be done to eradicate preventable disease in the developing world. But thanks to widespread vaccination, two other success stories stand out: the final defeat of smallpox in 1977, and the looming victory over polio, which is very close to completion.

Steve Radelet says that an essential factor in the war against child mortality and global poverty has been the generosity of rich nations. While acknowledging that some criticisms of foreign aid are warranted, he unequivocally asserts that "foreign assistance programs have helped saved millions of lives over the last several decades."

This largesse is a recent development in the history of international relations. The voluntary transfer of wealth from one country to another was rare and meager from the beginning of recorded history until the end of World War II. Now it is routine and abundant, and flows not only from governments but also from numerous private organizations.