The Case for Optimism

From technology to equality, five ways the world is getting better all the time

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

Our world is more interdependent than ever. Borders have become more like nets than walls, and while this means that wealth, ideas, information and talent can move freely around the globe, so can the negative forces shaping our shared fates. The financial crisis that started in the U.S. and swept the globe was further proof that--for better and for worse--we can't escape one another.

There are three big challenges with our interdependent world: inequality, instability and unsustainability. The fact that half the world's people live on less than $2 a day and a billion people on less than $1 a day is stark evidence of inequality, which is increasing in many places. We're feeling the effects of instability not only in the global economic slowdown but also in the violence, popular disruptions and political conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. And the way we produce and use energy is unsustainable, changing our climate in ways that cast a shadow over our children's future.

But I firmly believe that progress changes consciousness, and when you change people's consciousness, then their awareness of what is possible changes as well--a virtuous circle. So it's important that the word gets out, that people realize what's working. That where there's been creative cooperation coupled with a communitarian view of our future, we're seeing real success. That's the reason I try to bring people together every year for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). Here are five areas in which there has been concrete, measurable and reproducible progress.

1 TECHNOLOGY

PHONES MEAN FREEDOM

Forget what you may have heard about a digital divide or worries that the world is splintering into "info haves" and "info have-nots." The fact is, technology fosters equality, and it's often the relatively cheap and mundane devices that do the most good. A 2010 U.N. study, for example, found that cell phones are one of the most effective advancements in history to lift people out of poverty.

In Haiti, one of the poorest places on the planet, phones have revolutionized the average person's access to financial opportunity. Until very recently, banks in Haiti didn't make loans. Since about 20% of the country's income comes from remittances from Haitians working in the U.S, Canada, France and around the Caribbean, the banks concentrated on converting the dollars, francs and Canadian dollars to Haitian currency. While that kept the banks in business, it didn't help the ordinary Haitian or change the fact that roughly 70% of the country's people were living on less than $2 a day before the 2010 earthquake.

As a consequence, only 10% of Haitians have a bank account. But around 80% of Haitian households have access to a cell phone. So the chairman of Digicel, Irish businessman Denis O'Brien, worked with a Canadian bank, Scotiabank, to provide a service that lets Haitians withdraw cash and make deposits and person-to-person transfers using their mobile phones without a bank account. By the end of 2011, this service had processed over 6 million transactions.

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