The Optimist

Paving Paradise

A little more concrete 
could save the world. 
Really.

It's just a guess, but I doubt concrete would rank high on a list of the world's most loved materials. From Belgrade to Brixton, the antiseptic, brutalist tower blocks of wannabe Le Corbusiers have become eyesores -- vertical slums infested with graffiti and gangs. Twenty-lane highways in Houston are not generally considered a thing of beauty to anyone but transportation engineers. And for each megawatt of electricity produced by China's enormous Three Gorges Dam -- the world's largest concrete construction project -- roughly 77 people were booted from their homes. But what if, at the risk of infuriating Joni Mitchell, the path to paradise really is paving a parking lot?

If you've ever traveled, say, to a remote village in Swaziland and then returned years later to find that the charming dirt road is now paved over, there's a good chance you'll feel a bit of nostalgia for the way things were. Don't. There's also a good chance that the people there now are a lot healthier, happier, and wealthier than they were the last time you visited. All thanks to a little concrete.

Consider what it's like to live in a mud-floor house, as nearly 80 percent of rural Kenyans, and hundreds of millions of people worldwide, do. It is effectively impossible to clean such floors, which is a big reason that more than half a billion people worldwide are infected with hookworm, according to scientist Peter Hotez of the Sabin Vaccine Institute. Walking barefoot on soil floors is one of the most common ways to get hookworm disease -- a parasitic infection in which larvae burrow through skin, lodging in the gastrointestinal tract, living off the host, and making children very sick. Kids with hookworm are less likely to go to school and become healthy adults. The economic impact can be considerable: University of Chicago economist Hoyt Bleakley estimates that children infected with hookworm in the American South in the early 1900s went on to earn 43 percent less in wages as adults.

There are cheap ways to combat such nasty diseases. A package of drugs covering hookworm and a range of parasitic infections costs as little as 50 cents per person per year. Reinfection, however, is frequent, and improper use of the medicine can create drug-resistant strains. What works best? Not drugs, but pavement; it typically costs just a few dollars per cubic foot and can last a lifetime.

Here's proof: Starting in 2000, a program in Mexico's Coahuila state called "Piso Firme" (Firm Floor) offered up to $150 per home in mixed concrete, delivered directly to families who used it to cover their dirt floors. Scholar Paul Gertler evaluated the impact: Kids in houses that moved from all-dirt to all-concrete floors saw parasitic infestation rates drop 78 percent; the number of children who had diarrhea in any given month dropped by half; anemia fell more than four-fifths; and scores on cognitive tests went up by more than a third. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, mothers in newly cemented houses reported less depression and greater life satisfaction.) By 2005, Piso Firme had spread to other states, and 300,000 households -- about 10 percent of dirt-floor houses in Mexico -- had taken part in the program.

It helps if the street outside the house gets paved, too -- not so much for health reasons as for economic ones. Economists Marco Gonzalez-Navarro and Climent Quintana-Domeque found in a 2010 study that paving the street in the town of Acayucan, Mexico, added more than 50 percent to land values and caused a 31 percent rise in rental values. It also considerably increased households' access to credit. As a result, households on paved streets were 40 percent more likely to have cars.

While the concrete mixers are there, why stop at the edge of town? Paving roads in rural areas has enormous human benefits -- and not just by putting millions of people to work worldwide. Research by economists Shahidur R. Khandker, Gayatri B. Koolwal, and Zaid Bakht found that paved roads increased agricultural wages by 27 percent and output by more than 30 percent. It also increased school enrollment by as much as 14 percent.

Even fixing potholes helps -- a lesson that applies as much in Washington and New York as it does in La Paz and Lagos. World Bank estimates for Latin America suggest that if infrastructure were properly maintained, the region's GDP would be boosted by as much as 40 percent.

Of course, there are considerable environmental factors to account for: Making and pouring concrete and asphalt is a big source of greenhouse gases, and roads generate traffic, which means more exhaust and carbon emissions. Not to mention that building new roads in a pristine forest is a pretty surefire way to lose that forest to loggers, often without much in the way of economic returns. Concrete certainly is not a recipe for smart development of the Amazon -- and countries would do well to balance new roads with higher carbon taxes.

But a little concrete can go a long way toward cementing a better life for millions.

Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

The Optimist

Naughty or Nice?

Are there more deserving boys and girls this year than in the past?

Since it is the season of goodwill to all, holiday cheer, and all that, it's worth asking how much of these particular values are actually around nowadays. We could certainly do with more goodwill, of course -- particularly from brutal rulers in places such as Bahrain and Syria. And a bit more cheer on European bond markets might do the global economy a favor. But overall, levels of holiday spirit appear to be high worldwide -- and climbing.

A recent Council on Foreign Relations report gathered data on global opinion related to human rights that suggest widespread tolerance and good-feeling toward one's neighbors. For example, a 2008 WorldPublicOpinion.org survey of 24 countries found that, in every country, the great majority of respondents thought it was important to treat people of different religions equally. Even in the lowest-scoring country, Egypt, 74 percent agreed that religious equality was very or somewhat important. Of course, polling evidence is never that straightforward: The survey reported 67 percent of Egyptians also agreed there are some religions that people should not be allowed to practice, and recent clashes suggest tolerance of other faiths has some way to go in the country. But across the globe, the basic principle of religious tolerance appears to be widely acknowledged.

The same holds true when it comes to women's empowerment and racial equality. An average of 86 percent of respondents across 21 developed and developing countries in the WorldPublicOpinion.org poll suggested that it was important for women to have full equality of rights with men, and the same poll suggested equality of treatment for different races and ethnicities was important to an average of 91 percent of respondents across countries. India ranked lowest in both categories, but six out of ten people in the country still said equality of treatment for different races and for men and women was important.

At the Center for Global Development, my colleague Jonathan Karver and I are looking at how such attitudes have changed over time. Data from the World Values Survey, which covers countries with a combined population of nearly four billion people, suggests that between the second wave of the survey (conducted between 1988 and 1993) and the fourth wave (from 2004 to 2005), there are signs of growing global tolerance. The proportion of people worldwide who say they wouldn't want to have a neighbor of a different religion dropped from 67 percent to 48 percent -- and the proportion fell in 21 out of 23 countries surveyed. While the overall proportion of respondents who said they did not want people of a different race or immigrants as neighbors did rise slightly -- to 22 percent and 23 percent, respectively -- the majority of countries surveyed still saw a decline. And overall, the results suggest that, by 2005, the majority of the world was happy with neighbors of whatever race, creed, or nationality.

While acts of bigotry are still an everyday occurrence, the forces of intolerance are on the wrong side of history. Two-thirds of Americans think the United States should admit immigrants fleeing poverty, for example. Changing attitudes help to explain why the effects of discrimination against groups like India's Dalits -- "untouchables" -- appear to be on the wane. More Dalits are working in nontraditional jobs like tailoring and driving (their more traditional employment was in occupations like bonded agricultural labor, tanning, and dealing with night-soil), and many more Dalit girls are going to school.

What's more, the ultimate expression of ill-will -- trying to kill someone --  is also on the decline almost everywhere. The last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any in the last hundred years. Violent crime also appears to be increasingly rare worldwide. In 2002, about 332,000 homicides from around the globe were reported to the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime. By 2008, that had dropped to 289,000. Between those years, the homicide rate fell in 68 reporting countries and increased in only 26. Compared to 1995, the homicide rate has fallen in three quarters of reporting countries. The U.N. data becomes patchier after 2008, but if the United States is anything to go by, it could be that the trend has continued more recently  -- 2010 saw 13 percent fewer violent crimes in the United States than did 2006.

There doesn't seem to be a simple explanation for why the world is becoming more tolerant and pacific over time. But part of the answer may be that we're witnessing a cultural sea change when it comes to attitudes toward the acceptability of both discrimination in general and violence in particular. Perhaps there's a part played by television there -- with over 1.4 billion of them in homes worldwide, the medium brings people of different races, creeds, and countries into living rooms and suggests how our daily concerns are alike. So do your part: Watch that re-run of It's a Wonderful Life.

This greater global comity must certainly be one reason that the world is increasingly merry. The proportion of the planet reporting they were somewhat or very happy climbed from under three-quarters to over four-fifths between the two World Values Survey waves. Global contentment may have dipped as a result of the financial crisis -- but Princeton University economist Angus Deaton suggested that happiness polls have pretty much recovered to their pre-crisis levels in the United States. And countries like China and India, which account for much of the world's population, became ever more prosperous over the past few years. So it seems very likely that cheer remains the default state for the great majority of humanity.

It is less jolly that, even as people are becoming better behaved, our faith in them is dropping. According to the World Values Survey, the proportion of people across the planet that believe most people can be trusted has fallen from 43 percent to 34 percent between the early 1990s and the mid 2000s.

Regardless, fewer people worldwide are being naughty, and more are being nice. That's great news, because the last thing the global environment can afford this year is more coal in peoples' stockings.

ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images