The rollout of older vaccines over the past several years has also saved more lives than ever before this year, since vaccination protects for life, or at least multiple years. In August came news that there had not been a single case of polio detected in Africa in over 12 months, meaning the disease is now known to exist only in Pakistan and Afghanistan. What used to be a global killer, with 350,000 cases as recently as 1988, is on the verge of extinction. And just since 2000, worldwide cases of measles have dropped by more than two-thirds, saving more than 17 million lives—largely thanks to increased vaccination rates.
Meanwhile, the UN reported this year that global child mortality from all causes has more than halved since 1990. That means 6.7 million fewer kids under the age of five are dying each year compared to 1990. Nearly 7 million families avoided the pain of burying their child in 2015 who would have gone through it if the world hadn’t seen two and a half decades of historically unprecedented progress against childhood illness. 2015 also saw the lowest-ever proportion of kids out of primary school according to the UN—less than one in 10. The number of kids out of school has fallen from 100 million in 2000 to a projected 57 million in 2015.
Civil and political rights also continued their stuttering spread. While 2015 saw rights on the retreat in countries including Turkey and Thailand, the number of electoral democracies worldwide remains at a historic high according to Freedom House—at 125, up from just 69 countries in 1989 (though less than half of these are considered fully “free;” there is still a lot of progress to be made). This year, there were peaceful and democratic transitions of power in settings as diverse as Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Myanmar, and Argentina. And Saudi Arabia held local elections where, for the first time ever, women were allowed to stand as candidates and vote.
In the United States, this was the year that gay marriage became the law of the land. And once again events in America reflect a broad trend worldwide, this time toward greater acceptance. Mozambique decriminalized same-sex relationships in June, and gay marriage became legal in Ireland in November. In 2006, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association reported there were 92 countries with laws prohibiting sexual acts between consenting same-sex adults. This year, the number dropped to 75. Added to the trend of growing sexual and reproductive freedom worldwide, China finally abandoned its one-child policy in 2015.
So the world is better-educated, better-fed, healthier, freer, and more tolerant—and it looks set to get richer, too. In October, the IMF forecast 4.0 percent growth for emerging and developing countries for 2015—slower than the 7-8 percent that they managed through much of the last 15 years but nonetheless considerably ahead of population growth. The World Bank declared in September that, for the first time ever, less than 10 percent of the global population lived in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 per day. That is down from 37 percent as recently as 1990. There are a lot of reasons to think the poverty measures the World Bank creates are flawed. That said, the decline certainly reflects an underlying reality: Many of the poorest countries in the world, and many of the poorest people in them, have seen dramatic income gains over the last few years.