Swedish academic Hans Rosling, who died recently, was a skilled communicator who managed to bring subjects to life and shine light on complex issues, writes Kyran Fitzgerald
A leading Irish business editor was fond of saying that he was in the ‘info-tainment’ business. That person had an instinctive understanding of the media ratings game.
The Swedish academic and broadcaster, Hans Rosling, who died recently, went one better. He was a self-described ‘edu-tainer’, his path to fame paved by a much heralded ‘TED’ talk he gave just over a decade ago.
Over the decades, ‘TED’ talks have played a key role in the dissemination of knowledge across the globe, earning fame for those who managed to cleverly mix entertainment with learning. Rosling was right up there as a performer, helped by the fact that he had earned his stripes as a doctor in the field.
His tigerish approach to life hid an earnestness that sprang from his Lutheran cultural background. He worked for some years as a medic in the Mozambique of the 1970s — at the time, the southern African country had just gained its independence following the 1974 revolution in Portugal, its former colonial master. Many of his ideas were formed at a time when he worked in a remote rural hospital in one of the world’s poorest regions. He later worked for the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm as a Professor of Global Health before deciding to set up an organisation known as the Gap Minder Foundation aimed at improving the way data is presented by economists, particularly those operating in the field of development.
In his 2006 TED talk, Rosling set out his stall. He opposed the gloomy world view of neo-Malthusian theorists, who are convinced that the planet is headed for a disaster sparked by climate change and a collapse in the availability of resources. His view was that the problem we face is not due to ignorance, but rather to the pre-conceived ideas of often well-educated people in the Western world.
He pointed to surveys carried out by him which showed that people tended to greatly overestimate current levels of population growth and mortality in the developing world. In particular, we have underestimated the transformation in fertility patterns that have taken place, particularly in Asia since the 1960s — and not just in East Asia.
Put simply, many of us, in ageing western societies, fear that we face being ‘swamped’ by a tsunami wave of poor and needy people of darker skin hue. In fact, there is a bulge in the numbers of middle income people in many — if not most — of these societies where a maturing of the population is also underway.
He pointed, in particular, to teeming Bangladesh, a Muslim country where the authorities, both secular and religious, have overseen a dramatic drop in both child mortality and family size along with a surge in female participation in education.In Vietnam, life expectancy and family size by 2003 equated with that prevailing in 1974 in the US.
The message is that demographic convergence is underway across most of the planet — with certain exceptions, mainly in rural Africa.
Rosling presented his ideas in more detail in 2013 in a BBC documentary called ‘Overpopulated.’
He began the lecture that kicked off the programme in his usual style : “I’m Hans Rosling, I’m a statistician. Please don’t switch off !”
He used slick graphics and lego bricks to make his points. The presenter soon left the BBC studio for the field and Bangladesh where he meets up with the Khan family, a young couple with two daughters who are upwardly mobile.
Mother, Taslima works for the government family planning agency which has people in every village going door-to-door spreading the message of contraception and healthy fertility. Her schoolgirl daughter, Tangima aims to qualify as a doctor or engineer. She does not want to marry at 17 like her mother, planning instead to wait until she had qualified in her profession. The family are not atypical. The average number of children per family halved from five in 1963 to 2.5 in 2013. It is still decreasing.
Rosling pointed to high levels of child mortality as a key factor in large family sizes. Falling mortality stimulates population growth in the short term, but contributes greatly to longer term declines in fertility along with the spread of education.
The programme presenter returned to Mozambique to the region where he once worked. The country remains very poor yet Rosling can point to an “amazing transformation”.
Back in 1975, he was one of two doctors serving 300,000 people in a run-down clinic.
This has been replaced by a hospital with 15 doctors, including eleven Mozambique citizens. There are well equipped operating rooms,a laboratory and a 24-hour pharmacy. Caesarian sections are regularly performed. Rosling visited Andrea and Olivia, a farmer and his wife with eight children. The couple rise at 4am, walking miles to get water. Andrea says : “I plant all kinds of crops but still don’t earn enough to feed my children.”
But the family are clawing their way out of abject poverty. A new roof has been put on the house. Andrea brings his crops to market, the couple having weighed them first so that they won’t be short-changed by the middleman. The plan is to earn enough so that they can buy a bike. This goal is achieved.
Andrea’s new bike will cut hours of drudgery off their day. He rides home in less than an hour — the walk to the market took several.
Rosling returned to the studio, quizzing his audience on their perceptions of literacy levels in Mozambique. Thirty eight per cent say that it is 40%, 43% say that it is 60%. Most British respondents would conclude, in fact, that the rate is far lower than that.
The rate, in fact, has reached 80%. Rosling’s message is that we need to challenge our downbeat perceptions of life in places like Africa while recognising the enormous challenges still faced by the continent.
Of course, this sunny view can itself be challenged. Religious extremism, antediluvian attitudes to family planning and agriculture, the very present threat of climate change, armed gangs and corrupt elites. These factors remain.
However, Rosling provided an antidote to the counsels of despair that fill the airwaves and he belonged to a line of skilled communicators, including for example the doughty Canadian economist JK Galbraith, who managed to bring their subject alive, shining light on complex subjects.
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