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The sword-swallowing statistician

Swedish professor Hans Rosling and his Gapminder software was one of the superstars of last year’s conference. He’s here again, with more statistics and visualizations to show what we don’t understand about international development.

His theme this year is comparing countries at different points in time. He points out that the US in 1915 was quite similar to India in terms of child survival. By 1957, the US was as healthy as the Philipines today. Now we’re more or less tied with Chile, and they may pass the US shortly. There’s a 30-40 year lag between the developed and developing world in terms of health. The gap in education is longer.

What this means is that Rosling can look at his family’s history, comparing the status of Sweden in different years to different nations of the world. His great-great grandmother, born in 1830, was living in a country like Sierra Leone today. His great-grandmother lived in the equivalent of Mozambique, his grandmother in the equivalent of Ghana. By his mother’s generation, Sweden was like Egypt. “And I’m the Mexican”. His children were born in a year when Sweden was like Chile today, his youngest child in a nation like Singapore.

This is an important reminder about African development. People complain that Africa has failed to develop… but he points out that Africa has developed from the medieval to the mid-industrial in about fifty years, which is an amazing achievement.

There’s a concerning factor – every country that’s improved in GDP and child mortality has done so at the cost of increased carbon emissions. It may be difficult to demand that African nations develop without making the same increase that developed nations made in CO2.

Rosling’s newest visualization is called “Dollar Street”. The addresses on the street represent the number of dollars a day the people in a particular country lie on. Walking up and down the street, we can see inside the bedroom of a family living on $2 a day, the kitchen of a family living on $5 a day, the bathroom of a family living on $100.

What’s the point of development? Rosling tells us that development requires economic growth, good dovernance and education, but that the goal is human rights and the growth of culture. To prove his last point – I think – he puts on a remarkable cultural display – he strips to a black t-shirt decorated with spangles and, on stage, swallows a meter-long Swedish made bayonet. I’m not sure what it says about international development, but it’s a memorable reminder that Rosling is a very special man.