Economist Max Roser: “We overstate the negative”

Max Roser studies living conditions worldwide. He sees a clear upward trend – if we take the long view.

In an interview with GIZ Magazine akzente, he talks about Climate change, armed conflicts around the world and a functioning democracy as an important factor for better living conditions. 

You look at trends in living conditions around the world. What is the situation today? Are things getting better or worse?

Max Roser: It depends which time frame you look at. Right now, I get the impression that things are getting worse. But these are just snapshots. The long-term trend looks very different – it’s important to remember that. Here, the curve is clearly rising. Take issues such as health, poverty, violence and food – it’s astonishing how much has changed for the better over recent decades.

Are there any other positive trends?

Max Roser: Yes, and they can be observed across a range of areas – including some that you wouldn’t expect. For example, the murder rate in Europe has steadily declined over the centuries. Most European countries now have an annual murder rate of around one per 100,000 inhabitants. But in earlier centuries, it was more like 30 or 40. Anyone who thinks that the past was a peaceful idyll is mistaken.

“Climate change is real and we have to respond”

Why do you think people nowadays have the sense that the world has lost its moorings?

Max Roser: It’s all about perceptions. I don’t think there was ever a time in history when people didn’t think the world was spinning out of control. We are too quick to look at the negatives and ignore all the progress. That’s not to deny the real problems that we face. Climate change, for example: it’s real and we have to respond. But we tend to overstate the negatives and think that obstacles are insurmountable. We often get it wrong, I’m happy to say!

What about armed conflicts around the world – what’s happening there? Are they on the increase or not?

Max Roser: Again, it’s all about time frame. The number of armed conflicts has increased over the past five years, but it hasn’t reached the level of the Cold War or the preceding period. The number of fragile states is rising, but in many regions, such as South­East Asia and Latin America, conflicts have de-escalated. That’s another positive development which we tend to overlook.

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“Functioning democracy a decisive factor”

What are the most important factors for better living conditions?

Max Roser: Politics is very important. For a while, we underestimated the significance of politics and overstated the importance of market forces and technological solutions. But the general conditions existing in individual countries and at the international level are the decisive factor. A functioning democracy has a hugely positive impact on living conditions.

What about violence – how much influence does that have?

Max Roser: Violence is undoubtedly a limiting factor, but even in conflict settings, life goes on: people continue to develop new ideas and attempt to improve their lives. Even in these situations, it is possible to make breakthroughs which help to stabilise the situation. There are some interesting research findings available on this subject: they show how inventive people become in order to survive crises. And inevitably, the violence ends sooner or later, so we should never give up. To do that would be a big mistake!

You always take the long view, but the 2030 Agenda is time-limited to 15 years. Will we have seen any improvements by then?

Max Roser: Yes, I think so. That has to do with the following effect: countries which pioneer a breakthrough often take a very long time about it. Take the birth rate: Great Britain took 95 years to reduce the number of births per woman from six to less than three. South Korea managed it in 18 years and Iran did it in 10. That’s a very positive trend because population growth needs to fall if we are to achieve sustainable, resource-efficient economic growth. It’s the same in other areas: more rapid progress is achieved once pioneers have done the groundwork. Renewable energy use is a good example. Devising a solution the first time round is always the most difficult part. So I think we will see progress over the next 13 years even if the Goals as a whole probably won’t be reached.

Interview: Friederike Bauer

This article was originally published in the magazine akzente – issue 1/17.

The 2030 Agenda – is all that glitters really gold?

The 2030 Agenda is designed to enable people around the world to live with dignity, freedom and an intact environment. But there are also skeptical voices. For example, critics argue that there is no single objective clearly visible in 17 targets and 169 sub-targets. In addition, each country decides on its own how to achieve its objectives. Can the Global Goals really create a common perspective for the whole world? Join the discussion – and take a look at our recommended readings on the topic of 2030 Agenda!

Community discussion

July 2017


Amir Radfar
14 July 2017

A functioning democracy is a relative term ,open to interpretation and in its best form is only a susceptible factor rather than a root cause of issues such as as health, poverty, violence and food shortages however, Inequality is. As such,you can see those issues in many democratic countries . look at the drug abuse ,crime and violence rate in US ,EU etc!
As another example, Inequality and injustice affect heavily in the Eastern Mediterranean region (EMRO) region.The political and economic situation in the region since 2010 has suffered from continued unrest and uprisings. Revolutions and changes in government occurred in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. A civil war is devastating Syria, and disturbances are common in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Palestine, and Somalia. As a result, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee and seek refuge.
At the moment, EMRO is going through a crucial health phase. The uprisings and the wars that followed, will have a major impact on the region's health and resources. With the same token, In low-income countries, childhood wasting is the leading cause of disability-adjusted life-years in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen and child and maternal malnutrition affecting the younger age groups (aged 28 days to 4 years), Burden of mental health problems and drug use increasing.
Please read our recent research in LANCET:

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