Health workers vaccinate a child for polio, a highly contagious virus, during the National Immunization Days in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
A child in Afghanistan is vaccinated against polio. Global rates of childhood vaccination have skyrocketed Diego Ibarra Sanchez—The New York Times/Redux

The Age of Miracles

Jan 15, 2015

This is how I spent a few days at the end of last summer.

At a meeting in Europe, I heard colleagues who work on humanitarian relief tell heartbreaking stories of suffering in the refugee camps and rubbled cityscapes of the Middle East. Back in the U.S. for Labor Day, with Ukraine in the headlines, I was at a dinner at which well-informed conversation turned—for the first time I can remember, and I’m 63—on the real possibility of a general war in Europe. At work after the holiday, I read reports of the brutal execution by ISIS thugs of the journalist Steven Sotloff, and then was briefed on the terrifying spread of Ebola in West Africa—and the pitifully inadequate international response.

Then, trying to escape the despond into which the news had plunged me, and browsing Facebook one evening, as you do, I came across a post by Aric Press, an old friend and colleague. Aric was writing from Dakar, Senegal, where he and his wife were visiting his daughter and new grandson. He described his thrill at being able to Skype another daughter in her New York City office from thousands of kilometers away, to click on an app and listen to his beloved Cleveland Indians (even if they lost) and to wake up to a banquet of content from NPR to Haaretz and all points in between. “Completely ordinary now, I know,” he wrote. And yet, Aric continued, he felt he was “living in an age of miracles.”

So do I. My parents essentially lived their lives within a few kilometers of where they were born; my father taught for some 40 years at a school a short drive from his own parents’ home. They never flew.

My daughters, by contrast, had each flown some 50,000 km before they were 2, and have lived (so far) in a combined total of seven cities on four continents. Just like Aric and his Indians, I can follow every football match that Liverpool play. (When I first lived in the U.S. 40 years ago, I didn’t know the scores until a copy of the Saturday night Liverpool Echo, lovingly mailed by my father, arrived in Chicago.) And like many others who have been handed a diagnosis of cancer, I owe my life to therapies and treatments ­unimaginable to previous generations. All of that seems to me quite miraculous.

Aric and I, to be sure, are lucky. We are the patina on a sliver chipped off a great chunk of wood, members of the fortunate few for whom advanced medical care, instant communications and world-­shrinking transport are the norm. There will be plenty as lucky as us among those at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos at the end of January.

But the most dramatic improvements in human health and prosperity have not been limited to the Davos set for whom jet travel is a way of life. They have been distributed among those not long ago thought doomed—as their ancestors had been for countless generations—to short lives of penury and disease.

Better and Better

This central truth of our times is still barely understood—partly, I think, because so few in the global West fully understand just what has been going on to their east. Much of the dramatic drop in worldwide extreme poverty over recent years—from over a third of the globe’s population in 1990 to just 14.5% in 2011—has been fueled by Asia’s economic growth. And that translates to more than just an improvement in wealth and health. Hundreds of millions of people now have options undreamed of by their parents or grandparents. The vast human potential of an entire region has been unlocked. As a Chinese friend once said to me: “You have to understand, this is the best time to be a Chinese woman. Ever.” (And since China’s women make up nearly 10% of humanity, that is not a claim of small import.)

But the modern world’s miracles are not just Asian ones. Spend a few hours in the mad bustle of somewhere like Addis Ababa, for example, and you know instinctively that something big is happening. Ethiopia, like a number of African nations, now has rates of growth once thought to be exclusively “Asian.” Since 2000, worldwide malaria mortality rates have decreased by 47%. In 2003 in sub-­Saharan Africa, just 50,000 people were on lifesaving antiretroviral drugs to combat HIV/AIDS; now more than 9 million are. In 2012, there were some 57 million more sub-Saharan African children in primary school than in 2000.

Most dramatically of all, the chance of children making it past infancy is better than it has ever been. In the 1970s, less than 5% of the world’s infants received basic lifesaving vaccines; now more than 80% do. Partly as a consequence, deaths of children under 5 have been cut in half since 1990, from 12.7 million per year then to 6.3 million in 2013. And since statistics are important but bloodless things, just think of the sheer quantity of funerals avoided and grief averted which those figures represent.

The good news doesn’t stop with health and poverty alleviation. After the horrors in Paris and Nigeria this month, it is hard to believe that we live in a time of peace. Yet Harvard’s Steven Pinker, in his monumental 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, has documented the collapse—there really is no other word—in violence in modern times. There were about 110 homicides a year for every 100,000 people in 14th century Oxford—and less than one per 100,000 in 20th century London. In 1950, the average number of people killed in each armed conflict was 33,000; in 2007, it was less than a thousand. Pinker argues that the global reduction in violence has been so great that “we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”

And yes, just like Aric and me, millions more can now instantly follow the fortunes of their own versions of the Cleveland Indians or Liverpool Football Club from anywhere in the world. Sometimes that development can be lopsided—there are now more cell phones than toilets in India, which is great for global connectedness but less so for global health.

Yet when I asked an expert recently whether we were overhyping the potential of the rapid growth of mobile telecommunications in Africa—where cell-phone penetration has risen from 3% in 2002 to more than 70%—he briskly told me it had been underhyped. The explosion of mobile banking in East Africa, for example, means that female smallholder farmers can send and receive payments with complete security, while old-fashioned ballot stuffing becomes a lot harder when every poll watcher has a camera on his or her phone.

All of these miracles and more will be discussed at hundreds of formal sessions and thousands of side conversations in Davos. Yet if there is one thing that we know, it is that progress is not inevitable. There is a famous passage in John Maynard Keynes’ Economic Consequences of the Peace, written in 1919, in which the great economist imagines a Londoner in 1914, sipping his morning tea in bed, able to order “the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep.” Such a man, Keynes continued, would have “regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous and avoidable.”

We know how that turned out.

The Challenge Ahead

The risks are plain. by comparison to the slaughter that came before it, we have had nearly seven decades of a Long Peace since the end of World War II, no matter how violent some years have seemed. But there’s no guarantee that this will last forever. Nations could rediscover their taste for combat, which would mean not just needless death but a revival of global poverty. War zones are poor zones.

Economic growth, the engine of many of these miracles, might run out of steam and fail to deliver sufficient well-paying jobs to lift nations out of poverty—or simply distribute its gains so inequitably that political instability follows. With growth slowing in China and stalled in the euro zone, there are genuine risks of a contraction in global demand for the commodities that are the foundation of many developing-world economies. The wonders of transportation that have enriched the lives of so many might spread pandemic disease around the earth. Climate change, which will be felt first and worst by the poor, might scorch marginal farmland, pushing tens of millions into fetid slums and shantytowns.

It’s no coincidence that this year’s ­Davos meeting will focus on the fragility and uncertainty facing the world today. So how can those dangers be defused? How can we keep the age of miracles going?

In 2015, we have a chance to find the answer. This September, at the U.N. in New York City, the nations of the world are due to agree to a new set of goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000. The MDGs committed countries to meeting targets for the reduction of poverty, hunger and disease. To be sure, progress on some key goals, like a reduction in maternal mortality, has been disappointing, but the world is on track to cut extreme poverty by more than half.

Over the next eight months, diplomats will be negotiating the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They are designed to finish the job: to end extreme poverty within the next 15 years, bring succor to those who go to sleep hungry each night and carry the benefits of modern medicine to those still denied them.

The new goals will have a broader remit than their predecessors, covering not just the basics of human survival but matters such as clean governance, access to justice and climate change—which will also have its own landmark conference later in Paris. The SDGs amount to perhaps the most significant set of international agreements since the end of World War II, which saw the birth of the U.N., the founding of the Bretton Woods institutions and the adoption of the ­Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But ambition on its own won’t provide a better life for the kids I met at a school in Ghana not long ago. They were thrilled that their village had just gotten its first proper latrines, yet their classrooms were still desperately short of supplies. Words don’t change the world, not even—O.K., especially—when they are the product of a tortuous drafting process carried out in the conference rooms of international organizations. “Goals” that are as broad as those now being contemplated risk being so fuzzy that they encourage nothing but a cynical shrug of the shoulders—which has been a reasonable response to recent efforts of international cooperation on everything from trade to climate change.

Celebrations of Change

Yet for all that, the goals are important. Bill Gates, who doesn’t throw compliments around like confetti, once called the MDGs “the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that I’ve ever seen.” That wasn’t because of their pellucid prose. It was, as Gates said, because they allowed people to “see where things are going well and ... where we’re falling short.” Similarly, new goals will matter not just because of what they say, but because they will give citizens a yardstick against which to measure their own nations’ performance. They provide a map to our better future.

Which is great—so long as we use it. Here’s the truth: many of the miracles that have saved so many lives over the past two decades aren’t supernatural at all. They are quite tangible, in an everyday sort of way, as anyone who has helped spread an insecticide­-treated bed net in an African hut would know. What is truly miraculous is that millions of people, just like you, have put pressure on their governments­—north and south, in the rich world and the poor one—to fund and implement the policies that have saved and improved the lives of millions.

But if the new SDGs are to do their job, then many more millions of global citizens will have to step up, more than ever at a time of economic austerity and fearful politics. It isn’t government leaders, or the wizards of technology, or the titans of business, who hold the fate of the world in their hands. It is, rather, those countless individuals who are determined that life can be better for themselves and their families­—or who are simply moved by compassion for others and a determination to do something about avoidable suffering.

To amplify all those voices, nearly 1,000 organizations have banded together in an international coalition called action/2015 that has started the long march to September in New York City with gatherings of 15-year-olds—bringing groups in to see the Prime Ministers of the U.K. and Norway, holding festivals in Indonesia, mock parliaments in Uganda and an array of other celebrations.

And celebrations is how we should see these events—celebrations of an amazing period in which life has gotten safer and healthier for hundreds of millions. Continued progress is not assured—the memory of those few anxious days at the end of last summer is all I need to remind me of that. But this year we can do something remarkable: adopt a set of goals that aim to build a better world, and create the global movement that ensures they are implemented. Do that, and we can make what was once miraculous commonplace. And what a great testament to our shared sense of humanity that would be.

Elliott is president and CEO of The ONE Campaign, the global advocacy organization co-founded by Bono

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