Quality of life around the world is improving. That is what the evidence suggests – not in every country, not in every way – but on average, and in general. Income poverty and child and maternal mortality rates are all down, while crucial indicators of development such as the use of condoms within marriage, vaccination of babies, schooling for girls, and access to financial services have seen important leaps forward.

So overall, despite huge challenges faced in many countries and especially for disadvantaged communities, there is a good news story to tell about the last few decades of development effort.

Yet, as Bobby Duffy discusses elsewhere in this issue, many people around the world think things are getting worse. In September 2017, as the UN General Assembly gathered in New York to discuss (among other things) progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, Ipsos partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to examine public awareness and perceptions of global progress on these key development issues.

The results are eye-opening. The public are far more pessimistic about development than they should be. Only two out of every ten people realise that poverty is reducing around the globe while, by contrast, 52% think it has increased (28% didn’t know). While two thirds of the world’s married women use condoms, most people hugely underestimate this number. And although 85% of one-year-olds have been vaccinated against at least one disease, again, most people think the number is far lower, just as they do when it comes to gender equality in schools and access to financial services.

We asked people eight questions about the progress of development. The average person can only answer two questions correctly.

Are we then a world of ignorants? Not quite. It turns out that people in emerging economies are much more likely to recognise the progress that is underway. The Chinese are by far the most accurate analysts of global poverty, with half (49%) of respondents saying that it has decreased in the last 20 years. Kenyans, Peruvians, Senegalese, Indians and Indonesians don’t do badly either, with over 30% of these respondents answering correctly. Compare that to Italy, France and Japan where only 9% correctly stated that global poverty is decreasing, compared with up to 68% (in the case of France) saying that it was on the rise. Partly this reflects relative local feelings about their own country.

Most people in rich countries have no idea that married women in developing countries are now likely to use contraception, but people in poor countries do know, and the huge surge in vaccinations of recent years is recognised by poor countries, but not by inhabitants of rich ones.

While respondents in all countries do somewhat better in their answer on child and maternal mortality, the same picture is apparent – poorer countries are more likely to understand that progress is underway.

Speculating on the reasons for this, the most obvious explanation is that people in poor countries can see this progress with their own eyes, comparing life in their households and communities 20 years ago with life as they find it today. Whereas people in rich countries remain largely unaware of progress – they don’t generally have time to study the data, and news stories tend to focus on local problems, negative stories and disasters in developing countries, rather than good news.

This is a problem. It is a common refrain in aid donor countries that aid isn’t working, but how much more support would there be for aid spending and development efforts more broadly if the true picture of progress were shared with donor publics?

This matters because optimism and understanding the progress the world has made are statistically associated. Among the group that do have a better understanding of development progress (about 1 in 8 people), optimism for the future is significantly higher. The best informed have a consistently more hopeful outlook across both their own future and the world’s.

The question is: which way is the causality flowing? Does more knowledge about global progress make you more optimistic about the future, or does a generally optimistic outlook make you more likely to think the world is improving? In my view, probably both.

Those in the Global South who see their lives improving are likely to be optimistic about the world overall. Those of us living in traditionally wealthy countries, who are now facing economic slowdown, may well allow our general pessimism to inform our view that the whole world is heading in the wrong direction. We shouldn’t.