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And now for the good news

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Beyond the bleak headlines, it's not all doom and gloom

The Age

By Pamela Bone

January 15, 2005

Right now, the world seems a terrible place. You wake to the news of the latest suicide bombing in Iraq or Israel, of genocide in Darfur, of famine and disease in Africa, of the build-up of nuclear weapons, and, more recently, of the tragedy of the Indian Ocean tsunami. It is a bleak picture of wars and terrorism, of devastation wrought by man and nature, that only seems to be getting worse. You wonder what kind of legacy this generation is leaving for the next.

It helps to realise that news, by definition, is bad news. There are, in fact, some grounds for cautious optimism about the state of the world (for those who want it; some are insulted by the very idea) as well as reasons to worry.

So, what is going right? In the past few decades, hundreds of millions of people, mainly in Asia, have been freed from poverty, and continued economic growth in India and China promises to lift the living standard of many millions more. The Growing Up Global report notes that worldwide poverty rates have declined as a percentage of the population but because of population growth the number of adolescents living in poverty is the same as it was 10 years ago: 325 million.

But the population explosion is just about over. The global population will not reach 12 billion, as was thought only a few years ago. Instead it will climb to about 9 billion by 2050, after which it is expected to plateau and gradually decline. This still means an extra 3 billion people on the planet. And while the world has the capacity to feed them - increases in food production in the past 40 or so years have easily outstripped population growth - our children's generation will have to cope with the environmental challenges of this much larger population.

Believe it or not, there are fewer wars. According to a new Human Security Report published by Oxford University Press, fewer people are dying as a result of war now than at almost any time since the 1920s. This century, long-running conflicts in many African countries - in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia and Burundi - have ended. Most recently, a peace agreement has been signed to end the war in southern Sudan that has lasted 21 years and cost about 2 million lives. This optimistic picture should not hide the fact that in the Darfur region of Sudan a genocide has been committed and may still be taking place while the world's attention is concentrated elsewhere.

Democracy is spreading: two-thirds of the world's states are either democracies or on a path to democracy. Afghanistan is now a democracy, however frail; democracy has won in Ukraine; the Palestinian elections have been declared free and fair. The news from Iraq is indeed bad. But whether the election is postponed - as it should be; it is too dangerous to hold it this month - an election will be held some time, and opinion polls show 80 per cent of Iraqis want the democratic transition to succeed. There is a glimmer of hope in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the election of the moderate Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority.

It was already intended that 2005 was to be a year for seriously attacking poverty, with a worldwide campaign to "make poverty history". Britain, which takes over the presidency of the G8 group of rich countries this year, will host a summit of G8 leaders in July that will focus on poverty. Prime Minister Tony Blair has vowed to use the presidency to focus on Africa and climate change, which are, he says - along with terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction - the most serious problems facing the world today.

In September, the UN General Assembly will review progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. In December, the World Trade Organisation will meet to discuss ways to liberalise global trade rules to allow poor countries access to rich country markets - arguably as important as aid in lifting them out of poverty.

The best reason for optimism might be the extraordinary response to the tsunami disaster. This has shown there really is such a thing as an "international community". It has brought a sense that there is one world that we must all share. If such an international will can be brought to bear for the victims of the tsunami, it can also be brought to bear for the victims of poverty and oppression. If that sense of one humanity can be maintained, there is hope that the world we leave to the next generation will be based on democracy, freedom and respect for human rights for all.

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Last modified 2005-01-14 06:09 PM

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