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By Robert A. Guth

What countries are in the developing world? Hans Rosling thinks you probably don’t know.

In this video, produced for the release of Bill Gates’s 2013 Annual Letter today, the quirky Swedish academic argues that people incorrectly divide the world into two – between developed countries, such as the U.S., and developing countries, like Ethiopia – based on the number of children a woman has and how long the children live.

“In many people’s minds the world still looks like this – developed and developing,” Mr. Rosling says in the video, showing a cluster of countries separated in two distinct boxes. “But it’s a myth because the world has improved immensely in the last 50 years.” He proceeds to demonstrate how, thanks to improvements in health care and other factors, child mortality has fallen rapidly in large swaths of the world since the 1960s. Over time, more “developing countries” have moved into the box of “developed countries,” he shows.

The video echoes key themes in Mr. Gates’s letter. Since leaving his work at Microsoft Corp. in 2008 to focus on philanthropy, Mr. Gates each year has written a public letter outlining the work of his charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and his thoughts on global issues such as health, agriculture and education.

In his 2013 letter, Mr. Gates focused on a topic he says runs through all of those issues: Measurement. His thesis is that anyone who wants to make steady progress against difficult global challenges needs to first find a way of measuring progress. Only then can you have clear feedback as to whether your efforts are working or not — and adjust your approach accordingly. An excerpt of Mr. Gates’s letter appeared in the Journal on Jan 26.
Mr. Gates writes that philanthropy and government programs need to apply the lessons of businesses, which generally have a clear goal — such as profit — and to make use of all sorts of measurements to check how well they’re progressing towards their goals.

Since Philanthropies and governments don’t seek profit, they need to set other concrete goals and then find measures to track progress they’re making. He cites examples of the approach at work in a Colorado school, the fight against polio and the rapid decrease of child mortality in Ethiopia.

Mr. Rosling is a global health expert who, in recent years, has garnered attention for his work explaining global trends with colorful interactive graphics – and for his exuberant style of delivery (he once swallowed a sword on stage to emphasize a point). In this video, Mr. Rosling describes how in Ethiopia progress came thanks to an the expansion of health services and better measurement of health statistics in Ethiopia helped the country lower its child mortality and start the journey out of the developing world.

“It’s only by measuring that we can cross the river of myths,” Mr. Rosling says, leaning close into the camera.


– Mr. Guth, a former editor and reporter at the Journal, is a writer working with Mr. Gates.