May 7, 2012

The best feeling abstract statistical numbers

  There are a lot of awful news stories coming out of Africa, but it's a huge continent so it's vital to keep anecdotes and meaningful statistics separate in ones thoughts.
Yes, there are armed genocidal maniacs in the Sudan and I have wild lions running free in my neighborhood. But overall that doesn't mean things are getting worse or even stagnating in Africa.  A World Bank report just came out that shows child mortality across 15 African countries is falling faster than almost any imagined possible, an almost 6% drop every year.  That's about quadruple the rate the ambitious 'Millennium Development Goals' aimed for. 

This is an powerfully important statistic for a couple reasons.  One, is that child mortality actually reflects a lot more than the "how many under-5 yr. olds die per 1000 born" number.  It's a simultaneous insight into a whole lot of areas.  Keeping babies alive requires a lot: nutrition, medical care, stability, energy, and a coherent (if diverse and complex) social support network.  You could help child mortality a little in an area by building a hospital, but to really make a difference that child has to go live in a mostly stable home with constant access to healthy food and water.  If a newborn has all of those, there is a good chance that their parents, siblings, and neighbors do too. Although the causes for this massive improvement are as diverse as Africa, it indicates that things are getting better for millions. And FAST.

The second part is what it means about the future.  Many people are rightly concerned about the world population, but it's a tricky to actually do anything about.  Chinas 'One-child' policy has been very effective at lowering the population growth, but not many countries in the world will likely follow their model.  However, when one generation sees that most of their siblings survive there is a lot less pressure to have large families in the next generation.  Both Erin and my parents came from large families in a generation that reaped the early benefits of the polio vaccine, widespread antibiotics and the roaring 50s-60s economy that pulled many Americans out of poverty.  Not coincidentally, I suspect, both Erin and I only have one sibling. If the same pattern holds true here, the smaller families will have a larger impact on societal, economic and environmental sustainability than almost anything else. 
All of this is wonderful news, but it isn't why this feels so wonderful.   Everywhere we go, kids are thrilled to model for our pictures.  Of the 27 kids in just these pictures, statistically more than three wouldn't make it to age 5 in Kenya in 2003.  Today, just a handful of years later, that number dropped to less than two.