"Through perseverance and with real willpower, we can win the fight against poverty."

Article, 27.08.2015

Hans Rosling is an internationally renowned professor of public health. In his presentation he wanted to break away from some of our preconceived ideas about the future of the world and offer a glimmer of hope, steering clear of naive optimism.

Professor Hans Rosling talking to the audience.
Professor Hans Rosling gave an hour-long presentation of the results of his research using animated graphics. © SDC

His method was nothing if not original: he asked 250 of the people attending the conference to answer six questions on the current state of the world using an interactive console. He demonstrated that what people think they know about demographics, vaccination rates and global life expectancy is more often than not incorrect. His conclusion is that solid expertise is needed for development assistance to work properly.

Professor Rosling, your message could hardly have been clearer – the general public has insufficient information about development assistance.

Yes, and I'd even say that applies to many of the professionals working in the sector. I'm often quite shocked by the results of my surveys. How many people know that the average rate of vaccination against measles among children under five is 87%? How many people could tell you that the average life expectancy of the 7.3 billion inhabitants of planet Earth is 70? Not nearly enough. And yet these figures are so important. The results are there for all to see.

Talking about demographics, you say that by 2100 the ratio of two children per couple will be the norm, including in Africa.

Take the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa: today the average fertility rate is 1.6 children per woman. I have no doubt that Africa can succeed in reducing its birth rate threshold values. That doesn't mean the population will shrink. On the contrary, it will double – or even triple – thanks to demographic momentum and the general rise in life expectancy across the continent. But with higher levels of education and a fall in infant mortality, all parents will eventually end up reducing the number of children they bring into the world.

So there's nothing to worry about?

People sometimes mistake me for a naive optimist. Of course a war, a pandemic or a major financial crisis can upset everything. But to those that cite the commonly held belief that we are under threat of a "population explosion" I would say look at the reality of the figures and the behavioural changes that Western societies and many emerging countries have already gone through.

You say that the majority of countries have made more progress in the field of health than in reducing economic poverty. How do you explain that imbalance?

In the area of health, over time we have developed new technologies and improved our knowledge. Most importantly, we have finally abandoned a number of stupid policies, such as encouraging breastfeeding mothers to use infant formula, and banning contraceptives and abortion. In this respect my own country, Sweden, acted like a "Taliban state" up until the liberalisations of 1958. Setting up robust institutions to guarantee strong economic growth, on the other hand, is a much more complicated affair.

Acknowledging that pockets of extreme poverty still exist in outlying regions of certain countries, what do you say to the pessimists who maintain that Africa in particular has no chance?

I tell them that ultimately we will win the day. At the peak of the Ebola crisis I was called upon by the Liberian government to analyse the spread of the epidemic and assist it in managing the crisis. I was very impressed by the sheer professionalism of some senior officials in the Ministry of Health. And at the same time I realised to what extent it was necessary to scare the rich countries of the North into providing serious funding to the countries of the South. It's hard to say, but it paid off in the end. That convinced me that with perseverance and with real willpower we can win the fight against poverty too. We have to invest especially in fragile countries and regions.

That is what the SDC is doing, along with many other donors.

But nowhere near enough! Explain to me why it is that the poorest countries receive less official aid than emerging countries? The numbers yet again speak for themselves: the international community gives less in official aid to the Central African Republic than it does to China. This is a real problem that bears thinking about.