New Delhi: Protests, religion-based violence, and trade wars. Ostensibly, this may seem like a turbulent time for the world. But a longer view of the data offers a more optimistic perspective. Compared to the previous century, humanity has already made significant progress on several fronts in the 21st century. For a start, more countries are now governed democratically. The world has also become safer and healthier. Children live longer and more of them attend school. Regressive views on homosexuality have turned progressive. To celebrate the beginning of the 20th year of the 21st century, we highlight 10 such major achievements so far.

Democracies outrank autocracies

In 1900, a handful of countries were governed as what can be defined as modern democracies. And though this figure steadily increased, for the whole of the 20th century, more countries were ruled by autocratic regimes than democratic ones. This changed in the 21st century with democracies emerging in far-flung corners of the world and eventually outnumbering autocracies, according to data from the Varieties of Democracy Project, a research group at the University of Gothenburg tracking global electoral systems.

Less war, more peace

More than autocracies, the 20th century was defined by two tragic World Wars. Despite occasional wars, the 21st century, fortunately, has yet to witness conflict on the scale of the two great wars. Perhaps due to the changing nature of warfare or the world simply becoming more peaceful, there have been fewer battle-related deaths in the 21st century -- even after adjusting for larger populations.


Greater globalization

2019 was a bad year for global trade. But even after a slump, the world remains relatively open - especially compared to the previous century. Starting the 1990s and continuing in the 2000s, global trade expanded rapidly, driven by both China and India’s greater participation in the global economy. But as trade wars escalate and borders tighten, some forms of globalization may be threatened in the coming years.

Urban boom

For almost all of history, most humans led a largely rural existence. Work and life was concentrated on farms and villages. With industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries, this slowly changed as more people shifted to cities. In the 21st century, this urbanization has continued unabated. According to population projections from the United Nations, nearly 60% of the world’s population will be urban residents by 2020. India continues to urbanize much more slowly: only 35% of Indians are expected to live in cities in 2020.

Healthier children

One of the tragedies of the 20th century was that so many children lost their lives before their first birthday. According to one estimate, in 1950, 16% of all infants died before reaching the age of one; by 2017, this proportion had fallen to 2.9%. This improvement has been driven by falling poverty as much as greater vaccination coverage. Across the world, more children are now getting immunized against fatal diseases which allow them to live healthier, longer lives. Growing anti-vaccination movement in some parts of the world could pose a threat to this achievement.


More school-attendance

Children are not just healthier but also more likely to be educated. In 2000, 191 countries promised to deliver universal primary education for their children as part of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Over the last 19 years, there has been significant progress on one aspect of this challenge: getting children into schools. Enrollment rates globally have increased significantly. In 2017, less than 10% of the world’s primary school-age children were out of school, according to data from the World Bank.


Progressive views on homosexuality

In 2018, in a historic ruling, the Indian Supreme Court decriminalized homosexual activity. The judgment was part of a larger, global trend of greater acceptance towards homosexuality. For most of the 20th century, in most countries homosexuality was considered socially unacceptable. But now there are 150 countries that have legalized homosexuality and 45 countries have legalized homosexual marriages, according to data compiled by Equaldex, a knowledge platform for homosexual rights.

(Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint)
(Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint)

An expanded version of this graphic can be seen here

Rise of the internet

Much of the technology that underpins the internet was developed in the 20th century. Yet it was only in the 21st century that the internet became the phenomenon that defines our times. In 2000, according to data from the World Bank, just 7% of the world and 0.5% of Indians had access to the internet. Since then, thanks to cheaper connections and smartphones, both figures have grown exponentially.

Explosion of social media

The internet serves many purposes but perhaps none of its functions have become as popular as social media. Starting with Facebook, social media has transformed how humans communicate, gain knowledge, and spend their time. In 2018, there were more than 2 billion regular Facebook users across the world. Social media may have transformed our lives but its ubiquity is now raising other issues of privacy, growing polarization, and psychological pressures.


The spread of satellites

The 20th century breakthrough in space travel was meant to herald a new era of further, more frequent space travel. This may have yet to materialise but there have been major developments in another area: satellites. There are now more than 4,000 satellites orbiting Earth.


Each satellite serves a different purpose but almost all have been launched in the last twenty years. And where once almost all space activity was led by the US and Russia, others have now joined the space party. India, for instance has now launched 27 satellites since 2006.

This is the first of a two-part data journalism series on the achievements and challenges of the 21st century.

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