... is a Swedish medical doctor, academic, statistician and public speaker. He is Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute and Director of the Gapminder Foundation, which developed the Trendalyzer software system. From 1967 to 1974 he studied statistics and medicine at Uppsala University, and in 1972 he studied public health at St. John's Medical College, Bangalore. He became a licenced physician in 1976 and from 1979 to 1981 he served as District Medical Officer in Nacala in northern Mozambique.
Rosling discovered an outbreak of a paralytic disease known as and described in 1938 as konzo and the investigations that followed earned him a Ph.D. degree at Uppsala University in 1986.
Rosling's research has focused on other links between economic development, agriculture, poverty and health in Africa, Asia and Latin America. He has been health adviser to WHO, UNICEF and several aid agencies. In 1993 he was one of the initiators of Médecins Sans Frontières in Sweden. At Karolinska Institutet he was head of the Division of International Health (IHCAR) from 2001 to 2007. As chairman of Karolinska International Research and Training Committee (1998—2004) he started health research collaborations with universities in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. He started new courses on Global Health and co-authored a textbook on Global Health that promotes a fact-based world view.
How would you describe the “WE” today? What does it mean to you?
6.7 billion people.
What is the driving force behind your work?
Curiosity. It’s extremely interesting to see how the world has changed. Plus the conviction that you can talk about the world without doing advocacy. Some people make it their task to explain what a city looks like. When you come as a tourist to a new city, you want to see museums, restaurants, and theatres, and if you come on business you want to know where banks and companies are – you need a map to find your way around. Gapminder provides an updated economic, social and environmental map of the world so users can find their way around.
What is the core idea behind Gapminder?
To use the graphic animation technology behind computer games to show the changing world. We apply computer games “enjoyment” to statistics to upgrade old mindsets and thereby create a fact-based worldview. We must upgrade the worldview from a “Tintin” view where the world is divided into the West and the rest. But to understand economic development, demographic change and health improvements, we now have to make data about the world accessible in a new format. Basically, it’s a new map: instead of north and south, we display country bubbles on a scale from healthy to sick, and instead of east and west, we show rich and poor.
And when those bubbles in our animations move, it’s like a football game. People can see how fast Africa has moved in the last decades to achieve a moderate birth rate. We’re rather like sportscasters using these graphs to open the eyes of a very broad public to what’s happening in the world.
You often use the expression “continuous world” - what do you mean by it?
You have to realize that the difference is no longer between the West and the rest – it’s between the fourth fifths of the world population that’s moving ahead and the one fifth that is left behind. The new gap in the world will not be between Germany and China; it will be between China and Ethiopia, maybe between China and Mozambique. That’s the big challenge: you have to bring all the poorest countries with you.
And you have to distinguish between different countries in a much better way than we usually do …
Exactly. Africa is NOT one country!
There are huge differences between the countries in Africa. It's misleading to treat them as one and the same. For example: life expectancy in Cape Verde is 22 years longer than in Swaziland yet both are African countries. Botswana is one of the top 13 achievers in the world when it comes to sustained economic growth. It has been democratic and peaceful ever since independence. And it is also an African country. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most tragic economic disasters in the world, plagued by despots and war ever since its independence. Millions have died since the Second Congo War broke out in 1998. It is the poorest country in the world. And the DR Congo is also an African country.
Or look at HIV. There are huge differences within the African continent:
You can clearly see that higher income does NOT guarantee a smaller percentage of adults having HIV, and that the numbers vary tremendously from country to country.
The Institute of Health Metrics have estimated the average number of years spent in schooling by men and women in different age groups for almost all countries. The methods used for these estimates are all well-documented.
This data shows that there is no correlation between education levels in countries all over the world and the percentage of adults living with HIV. No matter if you live in the US or Africa, education does NOT correlate with HIV infection.
How about if you look at a specific country?
Yes. Let’s take Botswana as an example.
The rise, fall and re-rise of health in Botswana. In 1965 at independence Botswana was a poor country with low life expectancy. 25 years of remarkable progress increased life expectancy within 15 years. This gain in life expectancy was lost during the 1990s with the HIV epidemic. By 1988, Botswana had outpaced Turkey and caught up with Brazil. Then HIV grew to tragic levels, causing life expectancy to plummet by 17 years. Over the past five years, however, treatment of infected persons has reduced AIDS-related deaths by over 50%. This has caused life expectancy to rise again.
What about the correlation between children per woman and life expectancy? How does it look in Africa today?
Once again, there are huge differences within the entire continent – countries like Reunion, Cape Verde and Mauritius have already caught up with most of the Asian countries, and even with Europe and the US. But they are still many places like Somalia, Uganda, Niger, Chad and Congo – to name just a few – in which life expectancy is around 50 years and the number of children per woman is greater than 5.
Same thing with per capita GDP and child survival – there are huge differences between different countries. While in Sierra Leone, for instance, there is little money and high child mortality, Mauritius is once more doing very well – with good money and a high child survival rate. Mauritius was the first country to abolish trade barriers in Africa so they could sell their sugar and textiles on equal terms with the people in Europe and North America. Ghana is right in the middle between these two … Sierra Leone needs humanitarian aid, Uganda development aid, in Ghana it is time to invest and as we climb up to the top we arrive at Mauritius – where you can go on vacation ;-)
There really is tremendous variation in Africa – and yet WE continue to think – because we don't know any better or don't read the data – that everything is equal there!
As an investor, entrepreneur or development aid worker you need to be well aware of these things because such diversity demands that any solution must be highly contextualized. Otherwise it will fail!
You are saying: ending global poverty (and increasing child survival rates) is the clear path to reaching a sustainable human population. Why?
There are clear links between increased economic success and reduced family size, and between low infant mortality and reduced family size. I am convinced that by 2050 we can reach a sustainable human population of 9 billion people if WE start today to be serious.
What do you mean … serious in which way?
Look. The tragedy is that the 2 billion people who were alive in 1960 – when there were 3 billion people on the planet – are still struggling on an everyday basis to survive. They don't have enough to eat. This hasn't changed right up to today. In fact today 4 billion people are living in poverty. But today we are almost 7 billion people on this planet. So if WE don't start to become serious in getting these 4 billion out of poverty - WE won't succeed. Our problem is not the increasing numbers of the population, our problem is the 4 billion people living in these miserable conditions!
They sleep on the floor, they don’t have tapped water, they can’t take a shower, they don’t have electric light. To increase their standard of living to a decent level like that of Sweden in 1950 would mean increasing the standard of living by a factor of from 5 to 10 for two thirds of the world population. That’s a 10 fold bigger challenge than the number of people. I can’t understand why people are still carried away by numbers – they must have some problem with mathematics! But how do you expect a young couple in Africa sitting on the floor with rats, cockroaches and flies, and carrying water in a bucket to be satisfied with this and expect their children to live as they are doing. They will work hard, fight hard – do anything to get a decent life for their children. I’m not talking about charter tourism or owning a car or air conditioning, I’m talking about a decent life, not a minimal basic life, but a decent life. Perhaps going to the cinema once in a while or owning a musical instrument.
That will increase the standard of living and to do that, we need to have new technology. We can’t do that with existing coal technology. And this is a major challenge. We don’t have to change technology by 30% or whatever: we have to make a huge leap. But we are not making serious investment: the OECD countries are putting three to four times more into agricultural subsidies than they do into green technology. Green technology is not yet a serious issue. In fact the corporate sector is more serious about it than governments are at present. So why don’t we channel the money from agricultural subsidies into green technology? When we discuss the car industry, we’re simply not serious. In the Second World War the United States was serious. They decided to win and they put their entire industry into winning that war. If we did the same with energy, we would solve it. But we’re not serious about it.
We’re trying to win the next election, not to solve the problem. And in terms of long term trends, people in Africa, India and China won’t continue to sit on a mud floor while we in the richest countries aren’t serious.
How come that you are so closely related to the poorest in the world Hans Rosling?
I worked as a young medical doctor in Africa where I was one of the people who discovered a paralytic disease among the very poor in a remote rural area. We named the disease “konzo” after the name given to it by the first affected population. Thereafter I spent twenty years researching konzo epidemics that are induced by poverty, malnutrition and insufficiently processed cassava roots in remote parts of rural Africa. I’ve done many field surveys in rural Africa. And that’s when I got irritated by the term “developing countries”, a term that puts Mozambique, Thailand and Argentina in the selfsame group of countries. That didn’t make any sense because these countries are so very different. So I taught my students to take a more upgraded worldview. Instead of sorting countries into two groups, they should be sorted into at least 4 groups: high income, middle income, low income and collapsed. That’s how it all started. I wanted to show that the health and economy of countries today form a continuous set of variations in the world, from collapsed countries like Somalia and Afghanistan, and peaceful low income countries like Tanzania and Ghana, to the middle income countries now called “emerging economies” – like China and Brazil through to high income countries like South Korea and Germany. The health levels in countries vary from 40 years life expectancy to 80 years, and you’ll find all kinds of health levels in between these two extremes. And income levels vary from 400 dollars to 4,000 or 40,000 dollars per person per year, and here again countries can be found with all kinds of income levels in between.
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