While cruising the web, I found the site for gapminder
, a Swedish organization whose vision is "Making sense of the world by having fun with statistics!" The 2005 presentation on human development trends seems to fit that vision admirably. This is an excellent presentation that was given only slightly modified
at the 2006 TED conference
. The TED version includes some helpful suggestions for classroom activities to accompany the presenations, as well as a very helpful audio narrative. This is a great tool for understanding international development.
I was inspired by this to create the following exercise. I am not sure that I will use it in my class, as it leads in directions I don't intend to go. Nonetheless, it is thought-provoking, and raises clear issues of social justice. The problem from my point of view is that those issues are not ones I intend to cover in my course. Here is the exercise:
E X E R C I S E
Below are groups of countries, grouped by their 2003 child mortality rate. All the countries listed have child mortality of 1% or less, meaning that in all these countries, 99% (or more) of newborns live to 5 years old. In each group, the countries are listed from poorest to wealthiest, as measured by GDP per capita.
Try to list these groups from lowest child mortality rate to highest, and put the United States in its group.
- Singapore, Sweden
- Czech Rep, Slovenia, Spain, Italy, Japan, Iceland, Denmark, Norway
- Korea, Portugal, Cyprus, Greece, Germany, France, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg
- Malta, Israel, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Ireland
- Malaysia, Poland, Croatia
- Cuba, Slovakia, Hungary, United Arab Emirates
- Chile, Estonia, Kuwait
- Costa Rica
The groups are already in order from lowest to highest child mortality. The highest group has child mortality of 0.3%, and each successive group has higher child mortality by 0.1%. These numbers all seem very small, but realize the implications. Costa Rica has double the child mortality of Korea, or any of the other countries in Korea's group. This is not too surprising, given that Costa Rica's GDP per capita of $9,080 is slightly more than half of Korea's $17,000, and Korea is the poorest of the countries in its group.
Sadly, the United States falls in the group with Cuba. Cuba has GDP per capita of $5,400, while the United States has $35,500, close to seven times higher. The only other countries with GDP per capita higher than $30,000 are Ireland, Norway, and Luxembourg, and they all have substantially lower child mortality rates. Norway has half the child mortality rate of the US with roughly the same GDP per capita, and this is accomplished by several other, poorer countries, including the Czech Republic, which has a GDP per capita of $15,500, less than half that of the United States.
It is obvious that most/all of the countries that offer better survival prospects to their infants have national health insurance, indeed, very few countries with wealth comparable to the US do not. (Can anyone name one other than the US? I can't.) But the lurking variables in the situation lead in directions I am not familiar with. What are the leading causes of infant/toddler mortality? What steps are the countries with the best records taking? Why are they successful? What are the arguments against taking them in the US? All of these are fascinating questions that rise naturally from this simple exercise, and I can't answer any of them.
One tack I did briefly investigate: The issue of abortion. I found data on abortion from most of the countries mentioned in the exercise at http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/abortion/
, and plotted abortion ratios against child mortality. (Abortion ratio is the number of abortions per thousand live births in a specified polity over a specified time period.) There is very little association at all between these two statistics. The association appeared to me to be slightly negative, but with strong outliers that would probably render the correlation positive. In short, there is not much here without considering the myriad other lurking variables (especially the level of legal access to abortion and the cultural/legal status of women more broadly) that affect the prevalence of unwanted pregnancy and the access to abortion as a means to end them. In general, abortions for the purpose of ending pregnancies that are expected to end in the birth of a child with serious health problems seem to be a small fraction of all abortions performed, and so there seems to be little association between abortion ratio and child mortality.