2015 'the best year in history?' Not everyone agrees

Despite the past year being marked by global extremist attacks, a refugee crisis and violent conflicts in many places, some have dubbed 2015 as "the best year in history for the average human being." But not all observers share that view.

Some bright moments in past year, but development experts dispute 'best year' claim by The Atlantic Monthly

A Syrian refugee carries her baby as she arrives with other Syrian refugees on a dinghy on the island of Lesbos, Greece, in August. Some experts don't agree that 2015 was the best year in history for the average human being, contrary to a recent magazine assertion. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

As the end nears for 2015, a year marked by extremist attacks, a global refugee crisis and violent conflicts in many places, optimism would appear to be in short supply.

Not so at The Atlantic Monthly. The magazine recently published an article titled "2015: The Best Year in History for the Average Human Being."

The author, Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Global Development, evidently drinks from a half-full glass.

He asserts that a combination of progress toward a better quality of life for the considerable majority of the planet, combined with the potential for humanity to do better, is why 2015 was the best year for the average human being to be alive.

For example, global child mortality figures have been halved since 2000 and there are fewer famines and less pestilence. As well, there was an effective Ebola vaccine, the historic Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate change agreements were signed.

These are some of the examples Kenny uses to back up his claim.

However, a number of experts interviewed by CBC News did not agree.

If you were looking back at 2015 in a more serious way, why are we failing to deal with the worst refugee crisis in the world since the Second World War?- Kevin Watkins, Overseas Development Institute

"I think it's an absurd statement," said Kevin Watkins, the executive director of Overseas Development Institute, headquartered in London.

"You could say these are the best of times," said Watkins, alluding to Charles Dickens's classic novel, "because in general, human development is always on an upward trajectory."

"But it's also the worst of times because the gap between … what we should do and what we can do and what we actually do has never been greater," Watkins said in an interview with CBC News.

'Things are getting far worse'

Shannon Green, a senior fellow of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., shares a similar view.

"In terms of the number of people living in poverty or infant mortality, maternal mortality — all of those things at an aggregate level, it's true, have improved. But China and India are responsible for most of those gains just because of their sheer population numbers."

Five-year-old Nasreen rests with her family's belongings as she plays under an overpass in Mumbai in January. India, along with China, has developed significantly over the last several years. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Looking beneath the surface, Green said, "things are getting far worse" for vulnerable populations including women, children, and LGBT people.

And Green said the 50 countries characterized by the OECD as fragile states — where development goals are supposed to be focused — saw real reversals. 

"The people in those countries are projected to see their lives deteriorate quite significantly," she said.

The number of countries with declines in freedom have outnumbered the number of countries with improvements in freedom since 2005, according to the think-tank Freedom House. (CBC)

Freedom House, an organization cited in Kenny's article, compiles annual data for global political rights and civil liberties.

In its 2015 report, the think-tank notes a decline in such rights for the ninth consecutive year. So despite an increase of electoral democracies, "freedom" in the true sense of the word has gone down.

"Indeed, acceptance of democracy as the world's dominant form of government — and of an international system built on democratic ideals — is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years," the report reads.

The most high-profile global conflict, and its side-effects, also warrants greater consideration.

Worst refugee crisis since Second World War

"If you were looking back at 2015 in a more serious way," said Watkins. "Why are we failing to deal with the worst refugee crisis in the world since the Second World War?"

The International Organization for Migration said Tuesday that more than one million migrants and refugees have crossed into Europe this year, a four-fold increase from last year.

Also, that number doesn't capture the people who didn't make it all the way. Nearly 3,700 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Other conflicts and events, beyond the long-running Syrian civil war, have marred the past 12 months. For example, just recently in Burundi, dozens of people were killed on Dec. 11 amid unrest.

Policemen clash with protesters near a parliament building during a protest against Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a third term in Bujumbura, Burundi, in May. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Watkins points to UN reports of systematic attacks on children around the world in areas that "clearly constitute grave violations of human rights across a huge swath of countries — Nigeria, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, the Central African Republic, South Sudan."

Watkins added that the 2014 kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, as well as the bombing of schools carried out by militant groups, "can be carried out with impunity because the international community will turn its back."

"And that's what the international community is doing."

Global politics, said Watkins, don't look promising.

He lists the rise of anti-migrant, anti-refugee sentiment in Europe, the rise of nationalism, and a drift towards chauvinism illustrated by increasing prominence of parties such as France's National Front, the U.K. Independence Party, as well as the popularity of Donald Trump in the U.S.

"Many political leaders around the world, both on the left and on the right, are becoming increasingly inward-looking," he said. "There is still a perception that somehow you can insulate yourself from these global risks."

But the world has been making progress in international co-operation, according to the president of Canada's International Development Research Centre.

Jean Lebel pointed to the recent peace plan on Syria, the Paris agreement and the new UN Sustainable Development Goals as examples of how things have been improving. The Iran nuclear deal, too, was an encouraging moment of 2015, Lebel said.

French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius, centre, president-designate of COP21, and Christiana Figueres, left, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, react during the final plenary session at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, on Dec. 12. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

"We need to be extremely careful to be vigilant not to fall back into a situation that we have experienced and lived in the past," Lebel said.

"The reality is that it's very difficult to make statements on the world," said Lebel. "But I think, overall, it's going to get better."

"I'm optimistic, but I don't wear pink glasses."


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