Surprise! Foreign Aid Works, and Other Good News

Also published at the Huffington Post. When you hear every day about suffering, incompetence and corruption, it's easy to conclude that things only get worse in this world. But in fact, there's all kinds of progress being made, and many reasons for hope.

One of the best reasons I've come across lately is the most recent annual letter from Bill and Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation:

By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient... The belief that the world can’t solve extreme poverty and disease isn’t just mistaken. It is harmful. That’s why in this year’s letter we take apart some of the myths that slow down the work. The next time you hear these myths, we hope you will do the same.

The full letter is compelling, well-designed and full of insights. You can find it here.

Skeptics might think the Gates founders are just painting a rosy picture to buck themselves up. After all, they're spending most of their Microsoft fortune on this stuff.

But they're far from alone. Here's economist and development activist Jeffrey Sachs in the New York Times not too long ago:

The global picture will surprise doomsayers. According to the World Bank’s scorecard, the proportion of households in developing countries below the extreme-poverty line (now measured as $1.25 per person per day at international prices) has declined sharply, from 52 percent in 1980, to 43 percent in 1990, 34 percent in 1999, and 21 percent in 2010. Even sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the most recalcitrant poverty, is finally experiencing a notable decline, from 58 percent in 1999 to 49 percent in 2010.

The gains are more marked in health. According to the latest Unicef study this month, the mortality rate of children under 5 in Africa declined from 177 deaths per 1,000 births in 1990, to 155 per 1,000 births in 2000, to 98 per 1,000 in 2012. This is still too high, but the rate of progress is rapid and accelerating.

FInd Sachs' full op-ed here.

It's all too easy to believe the worst about the world. In fact, research shows that our minds are wired to be much more sensitive to bad news than good -- it's called "negativity bias."

And since fault is so easy to find, doing so often passes as a lazy form of cleverness. Cynicism masquerades as sophistication.

Then there are those who think the US is wasting money on other countries. If you ask people how much we do spend on aid, they guess 28 percent of our budget, and say 10 percent might be about right. In fact, it's less than one percent.

But you know what? Some of the most sophisticated people around think the world is getting better.

That doesn't mean everything's fine, of course — far from it. But it does mean we we have every reason to keep working on it.