Confronting Unconscious Bias with Factfulness

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As development professionals, our families, friends, and communities look to us to guide their understanding of the “third world.” In his book Factfulness, Hans Rosling encourages us to use our words and data thoughtfully to paint an accurate picture of progress.

Today, the economic, medical, and governance systems of many of the countries where international development professionals work are more comparable to those in the United States than many people realize. Increasingly, these countries demonstrate the characteristics we know lead to healthy, independent lifestyles for their citizens, even as they accept aid. Unfortunately, these countries are often generalized as the “third world,” leading their progress to be overshadowed by their challenges.

Enter Factfulness, a reexamination of our modern world, by Hans Rosling. Rosling, most famous as the energetic presenter of colorful data sets widely seen in his 2009 TED Talk, was a renowned researcher in the field of global health who sadly passed away in 2017. Knowing his prognosis, he worked hard to leave the world a guidebook to address one underlying issue that he had encountered continuously as an educator and researcher: an outdated understanding of the world. In Factfulness, Rosling offers an updated perspective.

It is telling that Rosling and his two cowriters took great care to make this text accessible to an audience beyond international development professionals. It clearly concerned him how out of touch we are with the realities of the world and how many, including educated scholars who study international development, continue to get well documented facts about the world wrong. Factfulness details different ways our unconscious biases, or instincts as Rosling calls them, have prevented us from fully understanding the realities of the world around us. They carry significant consequences for how we interpret data, interact with our overseas partners, and ultimately view the field of international development.

As professionals within this sector, it is up to us to incorporate Rosling’s teachings into our work. We can start immediately by shifting our approach to data and how we talk about international development.

Approaching Data with our Biases in Mind

One opportunity for all international development professionals is to use Factfulness to reexamine how we interpret and present data. Data is often one of the best ways for us to communicate the positive outcomes of our industry, yet it can be widely misused. Based on Rosling’s interpretation, we should be mindful of the following when working with data:

1. Know the common cognitive biases that are outlined in Factfulness. The first step to combating our own unconscious biases is to be aware of what they are and then look for them within ourselves as we analyze data. For instance, our instincts of fear and negativity make us hypersensitive to the ongoing problems in the world, but they can also prevent us from seeing the bigger picture of incredible progress that has been made, especially by development professionals and developing countries.

2. Be critical of numbers that are presented to us. We should aim to dig deeper, always use comparisons to put numbers into a meaningful context, and know when numbers are truly representative of the story that is being told around them.

3. Don’t be afraid of showing small changes. While often not as impressive, small changes over a long period time lead to big consequences. This is especially important in international development where it can take a long time to properly analyze the impact that we are having.

4. Visualize information in a purposeful way. Rosling was a master at taking data and presenting it visually in a way that his audiences could easily understand. He included important contextual constraints to prevent misrepresentation of the numbers. It is important for us to emulate this as we communicate about our work in the field.

Leading the Change for How We Speak about the World

Rosling insightfully points out that at the time of his birth, his native Sweden resembled Egypt today in terms of development indicators. When his mother was born, it resembled today’s Zambia in terms of life expectancy and average income. In 1891, when his grandmother was born, she used an outdoor latrine and hand-washed laundry in similar conditions to Lesotho today. His point is that development progress in terms of health and household conditions are not only improving worldwide but accelerating steadily. It is important that our communications about our industry reflect this.

Our families, friends, and communities look to us as development professionals to guide their understanding of the “third world.” Adopting Rosling’s language when describing a country in the process of development is an important way we can be sure our word choice accurately reflects the country we are describing. Descriptions like “third world,” “undeveloped,” or “developing” portray an inaccurate picture of a country. In Factfulness, Rosling assigns countries a level between one and four depending on the average lifespan and income of their people. Even those averages can obscure vast differences in wealth and poverty within the country since you can identify multiple levels within one country. While this may already be apparent to us within the industry, making these distinctions can help others understand the differences among countries and appreciate the gains that we and our partners in the field have made.

Hans Rosling fought many years to fight misinformed perceptions of the world. It is incumbent upon all of us in the international development community to take the teachings of Factfulness and begin to incorporate them into our habits when we encounter data and communicate about our work.

Posts on the Chemonics blog represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Chemonics.

About Eric Reading

Former Executive Vice President Eric Reading joined Chemonics in 1994. He served in leadership roles in the both the field and the home office. As senior vice president, he significantly expanded Chemonics’ work in the Middle East region and subsequently led the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. Prior to joining the executive team, he worked in…

About Zackery Hersh

Zackery Hersh is an associate in the Executive Division.