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At the beginning of a new year we can go through the year we left. We can measure our lives in many ways. One way is to just look at yourself and your situation. Then you can compare 2018 with the years before to see if you have a positive development on the parameters that count for you. Another perspective can be to look at the world, all the human.

The New York Times had an article on January 5th where Nicholas Kristof conclude that “Once again, the world’s population was living longer and living better than ever before” [1]. Let us look at the figures behind that statement:

Life Expectancy

Life expectancy has increased rapidly since the Enlightenment. Estimates suggest that in a pre-modern, poor world, life expectancy was around 30 years in all regions of the world. In the early 19th century, life expectancy started to increase in the early industrialized countries while it stayed low in the rest of the world. This led to a very high inequality in how health was distributed across the world. Good health in rich countries and persistently bad health in those countries that remained poor. Over the last decades, this global inequality decreased. Countries that not long ago were suffering from bad health are catching up rapidly. Since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled and is now approaching 70 years. No country in the world has a lower life expectancy than the countries with the highest life expectancy in 1800. [2]

Access to electricity

Electricity is crucial for poverty alleviation, economic growth and improved living standards. Each day on average, about another 295,000 people around the world gained access to electricity for the first time.

Access to energy is a key pillar for human wellbeing, economic development and poverty alleviation. Ensuring everyone has sufficient access is an ongoing and pressing challenge for global development.

At a global level, the percentage of people with access to electricity has been steadily increasing over the last few decades. In 1990, about 73 per cent of the world’s population had access; this has increased to 85 per cent in 2014.

High-income countries have typically maintained close-to-maximum (95-100 per cent) access since 1990. The increasing global share has therefore been driven by increased access in low and middle-income economies. In many countries, this trend has been striking: access to India, for example, increased from 45 per cent to almost 80 per cent. Indonesia is close to total electrification (sitting at 97 per cent) – up from 60 per cent in 1990. For countries with strong population growth, such improvements in the share of the population with access are even more impressive.

Whilst the trend is upward for most countries, a number are still severely lagging. At the lowest end of the spectrum, only 8.8 per cent of Chad’s population has electricity access. For some countries, significant improvements in access will remain a pressing challenge over the next few decades. The map under illustrates the distribution of access to electricity.

Despite population growth, the absolute number of those without electricity access has also been declining. The number without access has decreased from 1.4 billion in 1990 to just over a billion (1.07) in 2014. During this 24 year period, the number of people with access to electricity increased by 2.3 billion. This means that on average the number of people with access to electricity increased by 262,600 every single day in these 24 years. [2]


Education is widely accepted to be a fundamental resource, both for individuals and societies. Indeed, in most countries basic education is nowadays perceived not only as a right but also as a duty – governments are typically expected to ensure access to basic education, while citizens are often required by law to attain education up to a certain basic level.

A teacher is teaching student in a classroom. Photo: Kencana Studio

Increases in the quantity of education – as measured for example by mean years of schooling – has, for a long time, been the central focus of policymakers and academic debate. While increasing access to education is important, the actual goal of providing schooling is to teach skills and transfer knowledge to students in the classroom. This entry focusses on the outcomes of schooling – the quality of education.

While we have good empirical data on the access to education we know much less about the quality of education. Unfortunately, the data on the skills and knowledge of students is sparse and has limited spatial and temporal coverage. This is in part due to the difficulty and cost of creating and implementing standardized assessments that can be compared across borders and time.

Efforts to measure these outcomes are geographically more restricted (often only OECD countries are included) and even less is known about how the performance of students with respect to these outcomes has changed over time. A third limitation is that measures are sometimes not comparable between countries.

Most often these assessments are measuring learning outcomes of one or several of the following three dimensions:

  • Reading and language proficiency
  • Mathematics and numeracy proficiency
  • Scientific knowledge and understanding

From a historical perspective, the world went through a great expansion in education over the past two centuries. This can be seen across all quantity measures. Global literacy rates have been climbing over the course of the last two centuries, mainly through increasing rates of enrollment in primary education. Secondary and tertiary education have also seen drastic growth, with global average years of schooling being much higher now than a hundred years ago. Despite all these worldwide improvements, some countries have been lagging behind, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, where there are still countries that have literacy rates below 50% among the youth.

Data on the production of education shows that schooling tends to be largely financed with public resources across the globe, although a great deal of heterogeneity is observed between countries and world regions. Since differences in national expenditure on education do not explain well cross-country differences in learning outcomes, the data suggests that generic policies that increase expenditure on standard inputs, such as the number of teachers, are unlikely to be effective to improve education outcomes.

The following visualization presents estimates of world literacy for the period 1800-2014. As we can see, literacy rates grew constantly but rather slowly until the beginning of the twentieth century. And the rate of growth really climbed after the middle of the 20th century, when the expansion of basic education became a global priority.

If we look at different countries, we will find differences. The map below shows literacy rates around the world, using recent estimates published in the CIA Factbook. As can be seen, all countries outside Africa (with the exception of Afghanistan) have literacy rates above 50%. Despite progress in the long run, however, large inequalities remain, notably between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world. In Burkina Faso, Niger and South Sudan – the African countries at the bottom of the rank – literacy rates are still below 30%.

Primary school enrollment around the world increased drastically in the last century. The growth in access to primary education across developing countries was achieved through an important increase in government expenditure on education in these countries. In the majority of developing countries, net enrollment rates are higher than attendance rates. This reflects the fact that many children who are officially enrolled, do not regularly attend school. UNESCO reports that “among the 59 countries with comparable data, in 24 countries participation rates drop by five percentage points for the primary school-age group when household surveys are used instead of administrative data. The average number of years spent in school has gone up around the world. We see the pattern that early-industrialized countries pioneered the expansion of education in the 19th century, but this process became a global phenomenon after the Second World War.[2]

Is the Future Always Bad? 

Living conditions around the world have improved in important ways; fewer people are dying of disease, conflict and famine; more of us are receiving a basic education; the world is becoming more democratic; we live longer and lead healthier lives. So why is that we – mostly in the developed world – often have a negative view of how the world has changed over the last decades and centuries? Why we are so pessimistic about our collective future?

With all the negative news stories and sensationalism that exists in the media, it may be hard to believe things are improving. These events can be contextualised as short-term fluctuations in an otherwise positive global trend. Quantifying this progress and identifying its causes will help researchers develop successful strategies to combat the world’s problems. However, we can find an optimistic change; A larger share of the world population is living a life free of poverty and more and more people live in democratic countries. And more people get an education.


[1] The New York Times. January 5th, 2019

[2] Our World in Data

Lucubrate Magazine, Issue 52, January 18th, 2019

The photo on top: nappy

Categories: Magazine, World, Development

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Karl Skaar
Mr. Karl Skaar

He is a highly successful professional with a high degree of entrepreneurial flair.

- Responsible editor and publisher of the Lucubrate Magazine, Global
- Project Manager of the Lucubrate Project, Global
- Chairman of the Board of Directors of Norsk Kompetansebygging AS, Norway
- Chairman of the Board of Directors of Nobel Knowledge Building, Uganda

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