David Jones, who volunteered with VSA in PNG, says that anyone who works or studies in the area of 'development' should read Hans Rosling's Factfulness.

The author worked as a physician in several parts of the world and became a professor of international health in Sweden. He was widely known as a stimulating lecturer and TED talk orator. The important aspects of his work are crystallised in this challenging and extremely readable book of 342 pages which he completed soon before his death in early 2017.

Factfulness coverThe central message is that most of us have an outdated world view frozen in beliefs developed years ago and reinforced by many biases. Rosling advocates a much more nuanced way of understanding global life patterns, away from an ‘us-them’ or ‘developed-developing’ standpoint. His scheme suggests four brackets of living standard—termed Levels 1 to 4—corresponding roughly to daily incomes of (in USD) <2, 2-8, 8-32, >32, with the associated typical lifestyles described.

In the information-packed book (factful indeed) he demonstrates how most countries have successfully moved along quietly from Level 1 to 2 or even 3 within a lifetime. He shows the compelling parallel with Sweden’s development from Level 1 at his grandmother’s birth, Level 2 at his mother’s, 3 at his own in 1948, to 4 nowadays.

The book highlights the factors associated with success in a country’s evolution and goes into detail to tease out our unseen biases and instincts that distort our view of the world, so that we can distinguish the real from the assumed or imagined when presented with media reports or even learned articles.

If you work or study in the area of ‘development’ or simply want to know some truth about the world, you should read this book. It begins with a challenge in the form of a multiple-choice questionnaire that has been administered to many audiences around the world. Here are just three of the 13 questions:

Q1: In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?

A 20%, B 40%, C 60%

Q9: How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?

A 20%, B 50%, C 80%

Q12: How many people in the world have some access to electricity?

A 20%, B 50%, C 80%

The answers, which are all based on UN data, are at the end of this article. If you did not score well, you are not alone! Interestingly, Rosling describes how seemingly best-informed groups of people will score more poorly, worse than his random reference group (chimpanzees selecting a banana labelled A B or C!). The empty head may need facts but the educated brain, too, needs to be updated with correct information.

Rosling declares his wish to promote curiosity and humility in research and education and then decision-making based on true facts. He has a constant optimistic tone but certainly does not downplay the world’s problems. This book is challenging and is also rational and humbling.

Answers to the questions: Q1 C, Q9 C, Q12 C.

  • Factfulness—Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than you think, Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund (the Gapminder Foundation). 342 pp. Sceptre 2018.