Hans Rosling, the Swedish statistician who transformed the way we think about development and data, died this week of pancreatic cancer, at the relatively young age of 68. I haven’t got the time to do a proper tribute to him, but Gap Minder, the research group to which he devoted the last ten years of his life, has assembled a formidable collection of resources which show how wealth and life expectancy have been transformed over the short and the long run.
The youtube video at the top of this post, filmed by the BBC, shows Rosling in action, with his 200 year history of the world, which is worth five minutes of anyone’s time.
The chart he’s using there is on the Gap Minder site, and lets you explore the trajectories of different countries or groups of countries. There’s a host of valuable resources on the site, such as the ethnographic work of Dollar Street, going into the homes of people across the world to see what different incomes mean in different places in terms of everyday living standards.
I’ll also miss Rosling’s Twitter contributions, which often were a reminder of how fast fertility rates were falling across the middle-income and lower-income nations of the world. Typically this is far faster than the comparable rate of change at a similar stage in most European countries, and his tweets were a reminder that the rate of global population growth was slowing down rapidly.
The book club I’m a member of has just read the 1970s anthropology book The Mountain People, by Colin Turnbull. At the time it was a cause célèbre: my wife went to a theatre production at London’s Roundhouse based on it. Since then it’s become more controversial.
The Ik (pronounced Eek) are a group who live in Uganda, close to the Kenyan border. They had, at least by Turnbull’s (contested) account, been a nomadic people, but they had been excluded from most of their lands and had become farmers. They weren’t Turnbull’s first research choice, but he had some funds to spend and permission fell through for the first two locations.
Actually, the Ik weren’t even his first choice once he got to Uganda, and he knew precious little about them even when he arrived. At the start he’s accompanied by two young men from the area who have agreed to act as translators, but they take his money and mislead him, as far as one can tell from the text. The local leader offers to build him a house as a gift, or so he believes, and in no time at all, Turnbull finds he’s paying for a large team of builders to put it up.
Although much of the book is about how farming has reduced the Ik to a desperate plight, and he’s there during a terrible period of famine, he seems both incurious and unobservant. Some customs he observes is great detail (the divorce ritual, for example) while asking few questions beyond it.