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September 26, 2017

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Looking forward with optimistic realism

When the year 2000 rolled around, people across the globe passionately celebrated the "dawn of a new millennium." Some more literal-minded folks pointed out that actually, the date of the beginning of the 21st century is Jan. 1, 2001. Most people, however, ignored this mathematical fact and welcomed the new century and millennium in the year 2000. We are about to enter the year 2011, and although the last decade officially ended on the first day of this year, for many, the sight of an "11" at the end of the upcoming year is a clearer sign of a change in decades.

Looking back over the opening decade of the 21st century can seem somewhat depressing. There were the terrorist attacks of 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, catastrophic tsunamis, floods and earthquakes, the global financial meltdown and a host of other setbacks. But the daily news grind of killings, bombings, atrocities, recessions, natural disasters and other negative stories shouldn't blind us to the positive steps forward that both Taiwan and the world are making.

Charles Kenny is a Washington D.C.-based development economist and the author of a book set for release in March 2011. Kenny's book is titled "Getting Better," and in it he argues that despite the enormous challenges and difficulties faced by nations across the globe, things are in fact improving. Kenny claims that the past decade was not all gloom and doom — in fact he believes it was an excellent 10 years. The New York Times recently previewed Kenny's book and its list of positive developments over the past decade. They include the facts that average worldwide income is now 25 percent higher (at US$10,600) than it was a decade ago, international child mortality has been reduced by 17 percent and vaccines have helped cut fatalities from pestilences such as measles by a whopping 60 percent.

The information age is beginning to take root in even rural parts of Africa and Asia, with millions more people now having access to health information. In September, the United Nations food agency reported that, for the first time in 15 years, the numbers of people suffering from chronic malnutrition fell. There were still some 925 million people across the world who did not have enough nourishment in 2010, but that's down from last year's stat of 1.02 billion hungry people.

Also in September, a United Nations summit declared that, despite setbacks, the "Millennium Goals" — targets put forward in the year 2000 for drastically reducing hunger and poverty worldwide — are achievable by 2015. There is even some good news in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Last month, a report from The Joint United Nations Program on AIDS (UNAIDS) said the epidemic is stabilizing, with new infections and deaths falling. Thirty-three countries have seen their HIV/AIDS rate drop more than 25 percent over the past 10 years.

On the domestic front, Taiwan's economy is looking up and is set for modest but solid gains in the coming year. On Tuesday, The China Post reported that the Minister of the Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD), Christina Liu, believes that workers in Taiwan will begin to see increases in their salaries in the first half of next year.

There are, of course, different ways to look at all these statistics and developments. One can choose to focus on the significant challenges the world still faces rather than the gains made. Malnutrition rates might be improving, but there are still over 900 million people who are hungry. The AIDS epidemic is stabilizing in many places — including sub-Saharan Africa — but is on the rise in other places such as Eastern Europe. But taken as a whole, these bits of good news make a strong case for, as Charles Kenny puts it, "optimistic realism."

The world is making progress; even if it's not as fast as we might like. There is cause for optimism in 2011. Things are getting better and it's important to remember and celebrate the positive.

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