Dan O'Brien: 'Progress was real in 2018, but there is a danger of reversals next year'
If the pride of politicians and nations trumps reason in 2019, a year of upheaval may lie ahead, writes Dan O'Brien
Since the start of the year the number of people living in extreme poverty across the world has fallen by almost 25 million. This is an enormous number of human beings. Happily, humanity's progress in 2018 was not a one-off. Since 1970, when the global population explosion of previous decades began to slow, extreme deprivation has been on the decline.
According to the World Poverty Clock*, the share of the planet's population suffering extreme poverty fell below 8pc for the first time in 2018. It was twice as high as recently as 10 years ago. With health and education outcomes globally also continuing to improve, human progress is real and meaningful for anyone interested in seeing it.
This, in my view, was the most important development of the past year, and indeed of recent decades. But because progress tends to advance gradually and in billions of tiny steps, it often goes unnoticed. More noticed than the gradual march of progress are setbacks and reversals. They make headlines because they noticeably jerk people and societies backwards. Ireland's crash of a decade ago was one example. Venezuela's continued implosion in 2018 is another example. Yemen's on-going war and descent into humanitarian crisis is yet another.
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We Irish share the global tendency to concentrate more on what goes wrong than on progress and achievement. Take healthcare. The past year has had more than its fair share of bad news stories. With almost daily coverage of what is going wrong in Ireland's health system, one might be forgiven for thinking that is going from dysfunction to disaster. Such a conclusion would, however, be wrong.
Last week's provisional figures from Department of Health showed that in 2017 the death rates from all the big killers combined - cancers, strokes, heart attacks and respiratory conditions - had fallen by 15pc since 2008.
There are serious issues around the functioning of the health system in Ireland, around spending over-runs and - ultimately - around the unwillingness of successive governments to take on the sector's vested interests in the interests of patients. But despite these issues, improvements are being made: as a result of new medicines and technologies; more efficient work practices; and additional resources.
Better health outcomes are not the only evidence of progress on the home front. Just before Christmas, the State's annual survey on quality of life issues was published. It showed that life in Ireland is getting better by almost every measure.
The CSO's Survey on Incomes and Living Conditions found that in 2017 the deprivation rate - the proportion of people unable to afford everyday goods and services - fell yet again. Other measures of poverty also continued to trend downwards. Incomes from most of the many groups measured rose, too.
Income equality in Ireland was - yet again - little changed on the previous year. While there has been an increase in inequality in some western countries in recent years, Ireland has not been among that group, recording a remarkably stable income spread over the decades. Currently, Ireland ranks around the average among our European peers. It is worth noting that as Europe is the region of the world with the smallest disparities between those with the most money at any given time and those with the least, Ireland ranks as one of the most equal countries on a global basis.
Progress at home and abroad is important for consideration of what might happen in 2019.
One prediction that can be made with a fair degree of confidence is that in 12 months' time, millions more people will have crossed the threshold out of extreme poverty and that the sustained advance in global human development will have been extended by another year.
It would take a worldwide economic shock greater than the Great Recession of 2008-09 to halt the juggernaut of progress. Could that happen? The answer is that although it probably won't, it certainly could. History shows that sudden and big reversals often interrupt the positive longer-term trends. More specifically, the conditions currently exist in the global economy for things to go wrong in short order.
As Ireland is highly vulnerable to any international downturn, unlike relatively self-sufficient developing countries such as India, which is fast reducing extreme poverty, I would not be so confident that the Irish economy will be in a better place at the end of 2019 than at the beginning.
Start with a risk that, while of limited significance globally, would have a major impact on Ireland: a no-deal Brexit.
The first weeks and months of 2019 will be dominated by Britain's withdrawal from the EU, scheduled for the end of March. Hopefully, the British will swallow the withdrawal agreement that is on the table, including the Irish backstop. An even better outcome from the perspective of this island would be for the British to delay or abandon Brexit. But while these outcomes are possible, it appears more likely at this juncture is that the British political system will not be able to agree to any of these options.
If by early March the choice for Leo Varadkar and his Government is between backing down on the backstop or a no-deal Brexit, which would be the worst possible outcome and include a hard border, the logical decision would be for him to swallow his pride and to take the backstop off the table.
Reason and politics, however, don't always sit comfortably together. We might see that up close in Ireland in 2019.
The unreason of Italian politics has been the biggest foreseeable risk to European prosperity since a government came to power in that country last spring, promising among many other things, not to be dictated to by Brussels and Berlin. The populist administration believes foreigners have been humiliating Italy for too long. For them, national pride is at stake. This only increases the chances of things going wrong.
Since the fragility of the euro emerged almost a decade ago, when Greece went into crisis, I have believed that if there is an end point for Europe's single currency it will be in Rome, not Athens or elsewhere. That is because Italy, a giant economy with dangerously high levels of public debt, is only a few steps away from going Greek.
If Italy's political system was more effective, this problem might have been addressed long ago. But Italian politics is going from bad to worse and beyond.
If Italy's economy was dynamic it could grow out of its debt problems. But economic growth has been anaemic for two decades. Worse still, over the course of 2018 the economy slowed to a halt. If it tips into recession the country's debt dynamics could quickly spiral out of control, something a populist government would be particularly ill equipped to deal with.
A rising threat of sovereign default would cause the Italian financial system to go into cardiac arrest. That would trigger a wider European crisis. This is a real prospect for 2019.
The other big foreseeable risk to progress comes from the US. While the American economy is nothing like Italy's, how US President Donald Trump might react to a downturn is as unpredictable as how he might behave in a myriad of other situations in the year to come. The year just ending has seen Trump become more willing to pick fights with other countries. He has pushed China hardest and relations between the two superpowers are deteriorating rapidly. There is growing talk among scholars of international affairs of military conflict breaking out.
The consensus remains that reason will prevail. Both sides have too much to lose from war. But reason doesn't always prevail. When the pride of individual leaders or entire nations becomes the driver of events, bad things can happen. Let's hope that reason prevails over pride in 2019.