This summer, I will return to Kenya for a family vacation before my older children leave for college. When I was living in Nairobi from 2009-2013, people sometimes said they liked my articles and presentations, because I was “so much more optimistic” than everyone else. While I welcomed the compliments, I didn’t fully endorse them either, because I felt that my team and I were just doing our best to look factually at the numbers and explain them as objectively as possible: no spin, just the facts. Indeed the trends we saw were at odds with the widely held perception of Africa as a “Hopeless continent,” a vision conveyed by The Economist in an article of 20 years ago (on which the magazine later backtracked).
These thoughts came back to my mind when I was reading three books that recently came out: “Sapiens” (Yuval Noah Harari), “Factfulness” (Hans Rosling) and “Enlightenment Now” (Steven Pinker). Despite their differences in focus and historical perspective, they all strive to make us better understand the world we live in. All three books present refreshing counterpoints to the general pessimism that underpins the ambient populism and dystopian fears.
Surely, not everything is getting better. People still die too early, often from communicable and avoidable diseases. Man-made disasters also strike too often. However, as Steven Pinker notes: “Development is not that every aspect of life is getting better all the time. This would not be development. This would be a miracle.”