The world is richer and healthier than ever before, with fewer babies dying, more children going to school and people living longer, but the public is ignorant of the speedy rate of progress, an academic said on Friday.

Asking an audience in London to guess the average life expectancy of the world, Hans Rosling of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute offered three rounded numbers: 50, 60 or 70 years.

Few got the right answer: 70, or 71 in 2013 according to the World Health Organisation, up from 65 in 1990. A poll of Swedes found just 22 percent got the correct answer, said Rosling.

If the options were written on bananas and given to chimpanzees at Stockholm zoo, a third on average would pick the one with 70 written on it, making the highly educated Swedish public more ignorant in comparison, he said.

People surveyed in Sweden, Norway and Britain also hugely underestimated the proportion of families globally with electricity at home (80 percent), children vaccinated against measles (85 percent), and girls in primary school (90 percent).

Child mortality has almost halved in the past two decades in sub-Saharan Africa, but the Westerners surveyed did not realise, said Rosling. “There is an enormous overestimation of the death rate in low income countries.”

Recognising the success of past efforts is important because it will give people the determination to go further, he said. “You have to ask for future investment in humans based on past success.”

Huge numbers of people still languish in poverty, making it vital to use past gains as a spur rather than letting complacency kick in, he said at the London event streamed online.

Rosling blamed preconceived prejudices for public ignorance, with poorer regions stereotyped as unrelentingly grim and women’s prospects as uniformly bleak – without anyone stopping to look at the data.

High-hanging fruit

World leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York last month to agree an ambitious plan to end poverty and inequality in the next 15 years by adopting 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expired this year. The first clause of the first MDG, to halve the proportion of people who earn less than $1.25 a day between 1990 and 2015, was met ahead of schedule.

The first clause of the first SDG is even more ambitious: to ensure no one earns less than $1.25 a day in 2030.

Meeting it will be tough because while the MDGs netted the low-hanging fruit – the poor in rapidly growing regions like East Asia – the SDGs demand focus on what Rosling calls the “high hanging fruit…in remote rural areas that are difficult to reach”.

Charities often focus their limited resources on areas with internet and phone connections and good transport links, leaving the most destitute communities behind, he said.

But in order to eliminate extreme poverty, people must constantly be reminded how much closer that goal is than it was a few decades ago, said Rosling. “The whole idea that the world is getting worse, it’s not right.”

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Joseph D’Urso is an online production and breaking news reporter.

Image: Afghan girls study at an open area, founded by Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), outside Jalalabad city, Afghanistan. REUTERS/Parwiz