Dec 30, 2019

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Hello and welcome to a special edition of Axios World.

  • The topic — where populations are rising and falling, thriving and struggling — was selected by a reader poll. I’ve added a twist, looking at how that picture has evolved over the decade.
  • It’s 1,540 words (6 minutes), including plenty to smile about (and plenty to worry about too) as we head into the new year.

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1 big thing: The decade of the very poor and super rich

The 2010s may be remembered as the decade when the global 1% accumulated unfathomable wealth, but it was also perhaps the best decade ever for the world’s poorest people.

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Data: The World Bank and World Poverty Clock. Note: 1999–2015 World Bank figures are incomplete in South Asia. 2016–2019 figures are World Poverty Clock projections. Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The big picture: The rate of extreme poverty around the world was cut in half over the past decade (15.7% in 2010 to 7.7% now), and it was all but eradicated in China. A tipping point was reached in 2018, according to a Brookings analysis, with more than half the world in the middle class or above for the first time in history.

  • Along with that came massive declines in mortality rates for women and infants, both of which have been halved since 1990.
  • Meanwhile, primary education has become near-universal in most of the world, including for girls. The global youth literacy rate was up to 91% as of 2016, though sub-Saharan Africa (75%) lags behind.
  • The average income of the world’s bottom 50% of earners nearly doubled between 1980 and 2016, according to Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, MIT professors and the 2019 Nobel laureates in economics.

The other side: There was only one group that fared better over that time, Banerjee and Duflo write in Foreign Affairs: the global 1%. “The rich in already rich countries plus an increasing number of superrich in the developing world … captured an astounding 27% of global growth.” An examination of Forbes’ billionaire lists over the past decade tells much of the story:

  • In 2009, the world had 793 billionaires with a combined wealth of $2.4 trillion. There were 98 members of a more exclusive club: $5 billion or more.
  • As of 2019, the world had 2,153 billionaires with a total net worth of $8.7 trillion. Membership of the $5 billion club quadrupled to 424, and 166 people now have at least $10 billion.
  • To qualify as one of the world’s 100 richest people, you’d now need not $4.9 billion, as was the case a decade ago, but $14.4 billion.

The global picture: There were 130 billionaires in Asia a decade ago. Now there are 729, and 324 just in mainland China.

  • Billionaires weren’t the only ones to benefit. Generally speaking, the 2010s were a decade in which the world’s rich got much richer.

As the global 1% captured more and more of the pie, Banerjee and Duflo write, “The 49% of people below them, which includes almost everybody in the United States and Europe, lost out, and their incomes stagnated.”

  • There’s also cause for concern in China and India, which have been the primary drivers of global poverty reduction but are now experiencing slower growth.

The bottom line: Extreme poverty has fallen but not been eliminated, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where poverty rates are stubbornly high and fast-growing populations mean more people now live in poverty than a decade ago.

2. A decade of democratic erosion
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Data: Freedom House; Map: Axios Visuals

A decade ago, Freedom House warned of an emerging trend: Freedom had declined around the world for three consecutive years after a prolonged period of democratization.

Why it matters: That decline has continued every year since.

  • Countries like Indonesia, Hungary and Mali that were considered "free" in 2009 are now "partly free," while the likes of Nicaragua, Thailand, Turkey and Venezuela have joined the ranks of the "not free."
  • The flipside: There have been some improvements, including Ivory Coast (now "partly free") and Senegal (now "free"), while Tunisia has climbed furthest ("not free" to "free") as the lone democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring.
  • Several countries have recently shown glimmers of hope, including Armenia, Malaysia, Ethiopia and Ecuador.

The general trend is troubling, though.

  • Internet freedom is in decline around the world as governments increasingly use social media to monitor their citizens and spread disinformation. Countries from India to Iran to Zimbabwe shut down the internet this year to combat protests.
  • Press freedom is also under threat, with Hungary, Serbia, Israel and India singled out for worrying steps.
3. Population trends I: Cities are booming

Three to a bike in Kinshasa, which will soon have a bigger population than New York. Photo: Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images

This decade began just after a historic inflection point, with 51% of the world's population living in urban areas.

By the numbers: That proportion has continued to rise steadily, to 55% as of 2018. It's climbed faster in China, from 48% to 59%. That's an additional 180 million people living in cities.

  • China now has 130 cities of at least 1 million people, more than the U.S. (45), EU (36) and South America (46) combined.
  • India, which won't become majority-urban until the 2040s, has 61 such cities. There are 63 in Africa.

Nigeria just became majority-urban in 2018, but urbanization in the West African giant will grow more dramatic still over the next decade.

  • Nigeria's 10 largest cities are were home to 32 million people as of 2018, with 13 million of those in Lagos.
  • The UN projects their combined populations to rise to 50 million by 2030 — just over a decade away — by which time Lagos will have over 20 million residents.
  • By 2050, the UN projects Nigeria's total population to double to 400 million, with 70% living in cities. Compare that to the U.S. (82% urban), where the population will rise from 330 million to 375 million.
Bonus: World's biggest urban areas (UN, 2018)
  1. Tokyo, Japan (37.5 million)
  2. Delhi, India (28.5 million)
  3. Shanghai, China (25.6 million)
  4. São Paulo, Brazil (21.7 million)
  5. Mexico City, Mexico (21.6 million)
  6. Cairo, Egypt (20.1 million)
  7. Mumbai, India (20.0 million)
  8. Beijing, China (19.6 million)
  9. Dhaka, Bangladesh (19.6 million)
  10. Osaka, Japan (19.3 million)

What's next: By 2030, Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will join the list, replacing Osaka.

Flashback: New York City held the No. 10 spot until last year. European cities that would have been top 10 in decades past — Moscow (24th), Paris (28th), London (37th) — keep sliding.

4. Population trends II: Some countries are shrinking
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Data: United Nations World Population Prospects; Map: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Japan’s Welfare Ministry made an unwelcome projection last year: The birth rate now lags so far behind the death rate that the country’s indigenous population will fall by one person per minute in 2020.

Zoom in: There are actually 10 countries where populations are expected to shrink even faster than Japan's in the coming decades. All of them are in Eastern Europe.

  • Bulgaria’s population is expected to drop most precipitously, declining by 1.7 million by 2050.
  • That’s equivalent to the entire population of Sofia, the capital, and the metropolitan area surrounding it disappearing over the course of three decades.

The flipside: The global population rose from 6.9 billion to 7.8 billion over the decade, and it is expected to climb to 8.5 billion by 2030.

  • Sub-Saharan Africa is by far the fastest growing region. Having started this century with a smaller population than Europe's, it will end it with seven times as many people, according to UN projections.
5. Global conflicts: Fighting and fleeing

No two countries went to war over the past decade. In fact, that hasn't happened since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The big picture: Today's deadliest conflicts are civil wars and insurgencies, though some of the fighting — Syria, Libya, Yemen — is fueled by foreign powers.

By the numbers: The number of people killed in armed conflicts has fallen from a recent high of 143,409 in 2014 — the height of the Syrian civil war — to 77,392 last year, per the Uppsala Conflict Data Program.

  • That's still more people than were killed in 2009 and 2010 combined. This year's deadliest conflicts were in Afghanistan and Syria.

Armed conflicts are a major driver of the world's most dire food crises.

  • They are in Yemen, South Sudan, Venezuela, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
  • 10.8% of people around the world are undernourished, down only slightly from a decade earlier. The rate in sub-Saharan Africa (22.8%) is actually slightly higher than a decade ago, per the UN.
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Data: UNHCR; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Violence and hunger in turn drive migration.

  • There are upward of 60 million refugees in the world today, the most since World War II.
  • Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia are the biggest sources of refugees.
  • 85% of refugees are housed in the developing world, with massive burdens falling on countries like Colombia, Bangladesh and Uganda.
Bonus: Quiz of the decade

Bonus points if you can name the volcano. Photo: Signy Asta Gudmundsdottir/NordicPhotos/Getty Images

  1. A volcanic eruption in ____ stranded millions of travelers (2010).
  2. 33 miners in ____ were rescued after 69 days trapped underground (2010).
  3. _____ of Argentina took the name Pope Francis I upon his surprise election (2013).
  4. A photo of a drowned 3-year-old boy, _____, became a symbol of the Syrian refugee crisis (2015).
  5. New Zealand Prime Minister ____ pushed through new gun laws after the Christchurch massacre (2019).

Answers here in a great photo collection by Axios’ Rebecca Falconer.

6. Global happiness: Smiles spreading

The world's happiest countries do this a lot. Photo: TF-Images/Getty Images

It's hardly surprising that Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland top the UN's latest World Happiness report. Nordic countries always dominate such lists.

But, but, but: Some countries became much happier, and others much less happy, over the past decade. Overall, happiness increased between 2008 and 2018 in 78 of the 132 countries in the rankings (based on "how happy citizens perceive themselves to be").

  • Benin, Nicaragua, Bulgaria, Latvia and Togo saw the most dramatic rises.
  • Venezuela, Syria, Botswana, India and Yemen saw happiness fall sharply.
  • The U.S. was among the countries that became less happy. It's now 19th on the happiness list, down from 13 five years earlier.

The big picture: Heading into 2020, one could argue there's more to smile about around the world than a decade ago — even if it doesn't always feel that way.

7. Stories we're watching

Christmas Eve in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. May your 2020 be merry and bright. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

  1. World's Muslims facing unprecedented repression
  2. Interview: Congolese health leader on the Ebola fight
  3. U.S. conducts airstrikes against Iran-backed militia
  4. Israel hopes U.S. airstrikes signal hawkish shift
  5. Ukraine, Russian-backed rebels swap prisoners
  6. Chinese "gene-editing" scientist sentenced to 3 years in prison
  7. NBA sets its sights on Africa

Quoted:

''I am resigning ahead of time. I have realized that I have to do so. Russia must enter the next millennium with new politicians, with new personalities and with new smart, strong and energetic people.''
— Boris Yeltsin, New Year's Eve 1999
"There will be no power vacuum, even for a moment."
— Vladimir Putin, New Year's Eve 1999

Go deeper: Our special report on 20 years of Putin

Dave Lawler