The world in 2020: Some countries greater than others

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Alan Austin, wealth, poverty, neoliberalism, corruption, renewables, climate change, Greta Thunberg, Donald Trump, impeachment, corruption, Australia, US, UK, women, equality, New Year, 2020, standard of living, quality of life

With the second decade of the 21st Century just ended, is the world getting better or worse? Alan Austin reviews the year and the decade.

THERE WAS PLENTY to be dismayed about in 2019, but plenty to celebrate also. Let’s start with the positives.

Global wealth and poverty

Wealth is increasing globally, faster in some regions than others. Average wealth per person this year reached a record high of US$70,850 (AU$102,110). Since the turn of the century, total net worth – assets minus debt – declined in 2001, 2007, 2013, 2014 and 2017, but increased in the other 14 years.


There is more than enough food to feed the world. Local famines are the result of distribution issues, not supply.

Land under cultivation in poor countries has increased from 36.4% in 2000 to 38.8% today. Significantly, agricultural land in developed countries has decreased from 37.9% in 2000 to 35.3% now.

Medical science and health

Advances in dentistry, heart surgery, joint replacement, disease treatment and prevention continue apace.

Malaria in the poorest countries infected 294 per 1,000 people in 2000. That’s now at 193. Tuberculosis is down from impacting 0.3% of people in poor countries in 2000 to 0.21% on last reports.

Smoking shows curious trajectories. In some rich countries, smoking rates have now halved. But as cigarette advertising has been curbed there, the tobacco companies have targeted poor countries. In Lesotho, for example, smokers are up from 17.6% in 2000 to 26.7% today. Worldwide, the decline is from 27.7% to 20.5%.

Life expectancy continues to rise in most nations, but not all. In the poorest countries, this is up from 51.7 years in 2000 to 64.7 today. Rich countries are up from 77.1 in 2000 to 80.1% today. There has been a decline in the U.S., however, following political failures on health care, from a peak of 78.8 in 2014 down to 78.5 on the latest data.

Quality of life

Availability of electricity, clean water, sanitation, garbage disposal and medical care continues to increase worldwide. Access to electricity in the least developed countries has increased from 19.3% in 2000 to 51% today. Good, but still a way to go.

Personal safety

Generally, the world has become safer over the last decade. Several states and countries have followed Australia’s 1996 lead with more restrictive gun laws. These include New Zealand, Norway, California and Illinois. Both Brazil and Italy loosened gun restrictions this year, so we shall see if fatalities there rise or fall.

Road deaths remain concerning. Mortality has declined steadily in developed countries but increased in poor nations, where traffic has increased but law enforcement remains weak.

Death rates rose in low-income countries from 26.6 per 100,000 people in 2013 to 27.5 today. Worldwide, the rise over that period has been from 17.4 to 18.1.

War and peace

Conflicts still rage in Kashmir, Myanmar, the Palestinian states, North-East India, Colombia, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. But the long-term trend is towards fewer armed conflicts. The graph below shows fatalities in each post-war decade. As the world’s population has increased greatly over that time, deaths relative to population have declined more steeply than this chart shows.

Gender equality

Female participation in management has increased in most countries over the last decade, but not by much, and not everywhere. Wealthy countries overall show a rise from 28.5% in 2000 to 32.9%. France is quite good, lifted from 31.6% to 34.5%. The U.S. is better, up from 35.3% to 40.5%. Latvia better still, rising from 37% to 43.2%.

But developing countries are leading the way with Namibia up from 33% in 2005 to 47.1% and Honduras rising from 25% in 2010 to 48.2%. Britain lags badly, down from 34.7% in 2000 to 34.2% today.

The number of people who believe a husband is justified in beating his wife for various causes is declining worldwide, but only slowly. 

In Albania, women who believe physical punishment is appropriate when a wife goes out without telling her husband is down from 19% in 2009 to 3.7% today. Good. But in Burkina Faso, this is only down from 53% in 2003 to 33% today. Not so good.

Women in government

Finland’s MPs formed a new coalition government in December comprising five political parties, all led by women. Strikingly, four of them are under 35, including Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 34.

There are now 24 elected and appointed female heads of state and government. That’s up from 20 in 2010 and just seven in 2000.

Other advances in the last year and the last decade include in employment rates, wages, productivity, electronic communication, access to education, housing, global travel and tourism, space exploration and science broadly.

Areas requiring urgent attention

Concerns remain in other areas, including:

  • overpopulation;
  • climate change;
  • extinction of animal and plant species;
  • political corruption;
  • corporate greed;
  • ongoing wars; and
  • refugees.

Fortunately, none of these is without hope. It is not inevitable that these are in a downward spiral. Some are cyclical. Others seem to be worsening because some in the media want citizens in a state of anxiety.


Birth rates are declining in most countries but not all. The sooner poor countries in Africa and elsewhere are assisted to achieve stable and prosperous economies, the sooner the threat of overpopulation will recede.

Political corruption

The USA has provided an extraordinary case study in how a once-democratic system can be subverted by corrupt political interests. The fact that the current President has just been impeached is a hopeful sign.

Mass protests against oppressive governments with the support of large swathes of the population have been mounted recently in Hong Kong, Chile, Lebanon and France.

Australia, Britain and the U.S. remain the three developed nations where the majority of the voters seem profoundly ignorant of many political and economic realities. This is primarily due to fake news disseminated by the mainstream media, led by News Corp. This need not continue indefinitely.

Climate change

The use of renewable energy continues to expand worldwide, again unevenly. Most governments have indicated a commitment to global action. Greta Thunberg is Time magazine’s person of the year.

In all these areas more must be done. But optimism is justified. Happy new year. And happy new decade.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanAustin001.

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