The Best Person Who Ever Lived? And Best Country Ever?
For Stoa debaters, further down in this post, I argue the “best person of the twenty-first century” could be a homeschool debater standing up before the United Nations and world leaders to make the case for Free or Charter or “Millennium” Cities for migrants and refugees. The most economically free and prosperous city in the world today looked like an impoverished refugee camp just over fifty years ago. And that city is at the center of the Stoa policy topic.
The U.N’s Millennium Project, commissioned in 2002, released its optimistic goals in 2005 for ending extreme poverty around the world in just ten years. Well, those ten years are up, it’s 2015. Astonishing progress in reducing world poverty was achieved over the last decade, but not so much by the U.N. Millennium Project and the billions of foreign aid dollars spent on the hundreds of goals and tens of thousands of aid workers and consultants.
Instead, the greatest progress in reducing extreme poverty was achieved by people and companies in one of the countries listed in the Stoa resolution. And key to that success was investment and expertise from other listed countries, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Plus from entrepreneurs and enterprises in a Chinese/British city, the most economically free city in the world. First it was a port city, then for a century it was a colony with a charter from one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Then in the 1950s and 1960s this chartered city was transformed by war and a communist catastrophe next door into a giant refugee camp. Mostly ignored by the United Kingdom, this colony and its millions of refugees prospered with free trade policies and low taxes, allowing immigrant families to lift themselves from poverty to prosperity. Hong Kong continues to prosper, maintaining its mostly free-market economy, though wary of the tightening leash from distant Chinese politicians in Beijing.
More on how to be the best person of the twenty-first century, and how the Hong Kong model could end extreme poverty around the world–after a detour to tell the story of the “best person” of the twentieth century…
A post flowed along my Facebook feed, linking an article with the unlikely (and “clickbait”) title: “The best person who ever lived is an unknown Ukrainian man.” (I thought first of Ukrainian friends, they’d want to know, or maybe they do already.) “Best” is a good word, somehow sidestepping far more influential religious figures. I read the article and unexpectedly agreed. It’s a compelling story of an unrecognized hero who helped influence people and mobilize resources to improve the world.
(The Green Revolution’s Norman Borlaug should be in running for “best person ever.” Borlaug introduced high-yield crops and improved agricultural techniques in the 1960s, doubling yields in India and Pakistan, saving millions (or billions) of lives. For more, see this story on Borlaug in The Atlantic, “Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity.”)
The “best person ever” of the article first pressured his bosses in the Soviet Union, then stood up to influence world health authorities to finally and totally end a disease that had long been a scourge of mankind. Smallpox, unknown to many young readers today, was a devastating and disfiguring disease:
In the twentieth century alone smallpox killed more than three hundred million people — more than the total death toll in that time from all wars, all genocides, all terrorist acts and all political famines combined.
The story of eradicating smallpox in 1977 after an focused World Health Organization campaign is known from brief accounts in textbooks and online. The beginning of the end of smallpox, though, is not so well known, and that is the story William Macaskill tells in his article “The best person who ever lived is an unknown Ukrainian man.” Macaskill tells the story of “Viktor Zhdanov, a Ukrainian virologist who died in 1987”:
In 1958, Zhdanov was a deputy minister of health for the Soviet Union. In May of that year, at the Eleventh World Health Assembly meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during the Soviet Union’s first appearance in the assembly after a nine-year absence, Zhdanov presented a lengthy report with a visionary plan to eradicate smallpox. At the time, no disease had ever before been eradicated. No one knew if it could even be done. And no one expected such a suggestion to come from the Soviet Union; in fact, Zhdanov had had to fight internal pressure from the USSR to convince them of his plans. When he spoke to the assembly of the WHO, he conveyed his message with passion, conviction, and optimism, boldly suggesting that the disease could be eradicated within ten years.
Macaskill reports that Zhdanov’s presentation:
… referenced Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the inventor of the smallpox vaccine, Edward Jenner: “I avail myself of this occasion of rendering you a portion of the tribute of gratitude due to you from the whole human family. Medicine has never before produced any single improvement of such utility…Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome small-pox has existed and by you has been extirpated.”
By the force of his arguments, Zhdanov was successful. The WHO abruptly reversed its position, agreeing to form a campaign to completely eradicate the disease. Smallpox is still the only human disease to have ever been eradicated, and attempts to eradicate polio and guinea worm have only had such investment because of our success with smallpox. If it were not for Zhdanov’s actions, smallpox might not have been eradicated even today. …
Well, that was a great accomplishment, but so last century. Who will step up to persuade world leaders to save lives of those still suffering in this century? Diseases still plague the world, hitting the poorest the hardest. But lack of electricity is probably the world’s biggest killer, when diseases of old age are excluded. The World Health Organization (WHO) page is here, and chart is at right.
Heart disease, stroke, COPD (chronic obstructive lung disease) are diseases of advanced age. Next on the list are 3.1 million deaths a year from Lower respiratory infections, and that’s not a disease of old age. Instead, it is a disease of children living without electricity, living in huts and homes where wood and dung are burned for food and heat. Smoke helps keep mosquitos and malaria away, but also damages the lungs of children, contributing to millions of deaths each year.
ARIs are the third largest cause of mortality in the world and the top killer in low- and middle-income countries. Compared to the illness and mortality they cause, ARIs receive a fraction of government, donor agency, and philanthropic support.
Outdoor air pollution from motorcycles, cars, factories and other sources are estimated to cause or contribute to 121,000 deaths each year. But indoor air pollution deaths are far higher, mostly where poor families lack electricity for clean energy:
Every year, 1.96 million people die from ARIs as a result of indoor air pollution caused by the use of biomass fuels to cook and heat the home, as well as by exposure to secondhand smoke. Most likely, this number is severely underestimated. …
Bringing electricity to shanty towns on the edges of African and Indian cities and to impoverished rural villages would replace smoke huts and homes with light for reading, and power for refrigeration and light industry and internet for online education, medical services, and opportunities for call center employment.
An alternative to the expensive campaign to bring reliable electricity to shanty towns and rural villages is to allow the very poor to migrate to where electricity and jobs already exist. The ongoing migration to “arrival cities” is discussed in an earlier post, “Arrival Cities in China, and Globalization at the Crossroads.”
Recently a segment on NPR reported on the tens of thousands trying to escape poverty and turmoil in Africa and the Middle East. The person interviewed noted that it is not the very poor who try to migrate to Europe. The very poor don’t have the money to pay smugglers for transport (millions of the very poor are kept in vast U.N. funded refugee camps).
What is lacking in the twenty-first century are cities open to migrants crossing political borders. Poor people in Turkey can migrate to the edges of Istanbul and find work, and migrants in India, Kenya, Nigeria, can migrate to vast slums that surround deeply corrupt and heavily-regulated megacities.
New “Millennium Cities” proposal called for ten or twenty new charter cities, or free cities, to welcome the world’s refugees and economic migrants. Many have proposed similar charter city reforms. Including:
• Honduran Free City project (Reason report, August 2014)
So “best person ever” projects I recommend are to speed deployment of electricity and internet to the poor of the world to allow them access to clean energy and the world economy. And, grant economic freedom to some small parcels, islands or small ports, for new Start Up or Charter Cities. Free cities helped transform Europe over a few centuries, with the Hanseatic League, and later Dutch trading cities. The “overseas Chinese” of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and other areas helped speed the development of China by returning from their relatively free countries to invest capital and expertise back in China (see William Overholt’s great book The Rise of China, for that story).
(More on these ideas in later posts…)