Visualising the data behind the story: Bangladesh surpasses India in life expectancy

The recent Economist article ‘The path through the fields’ described how Bangladeshis’ life expectancy has risen significantly beyond that of Indians in the last decades. This happened despite India becoming much more wealthy than Bangladesh in the same period. The Economist tried to answer why this occurred. It is hard to achieve causality in these cases and journalists tend to collect reasonable and probable explanations for the reader to judge themselves. Looking at data you can, however, often find correlation. Or simplified, looking at data we hardly ever can be sure why something happened but we can show what happened.

When I read the story, I contemplated, while the story was excellent and informative, that there must be a concise, easy, maybe fun way to convey the development by visualising some of the data. So I dug through the World Band – Data Bank. There are many interesting changes occurring in the last half century. I designed several graphs to explore the data and they all tell the same story with minor variations. At the end, I settled on one rich, animated bubble graph that allows us to travel through 50 years of economic and social change, war and peace to arrive in the present where India is wealthier than Bangladesh but lags behind in life expectancy by 4 years. You can play the bubble graph animation I created for you below; see the changes in life expectancy (Y-axis), GDP per person (X-axis), birth (bubble color) and death rates (bubble size) from 1960 to 2011, all in one animation.


The graph above shows many facets of the story. For Bangladeshis most painful must be the sudden drop in life expectancy in the early 1970s, a stark reminder of the tragedy of the independence war. Within just one decade life expectancy between the countries turned upside down from 42 years in India and 50 years in Bangladesh to merely 39 years in Bangladesh and 50 years in India. Relatedly the death rate in Bangladesh was much higher in that period.

Bangladesh, once independent,  impressively turned around and not only undid the loss within the next decade but caught up with India’s improvement pulling even at 55 years life expectancy. Unfortunately, in terms of economic growth Bangladesh was treading water while India slowly advanced, closing the gap with Bangladesh (on GDP per capita). The following 1980s were the beginning of the path the Economist described in its article. Bangladesh remained economically static while India began to accelerate its growth. On life expectancy though Bangladesh was pulling away. The following two decades, the 1990s and 2000s, both countries advanced in economic terms and longevity. The change was accompanied by a continuous contraction in birth and death rates roughly starting in the 1970s in India and the 1980s in Bangladesh.

The changes were disimilar though. Both countries advanced their citizens’ lifes. Yet they are qualitatively different. Generalising, Bangladeshis are poorer but more long lived than Indians. The potential reasons are many. The important take away for me was that our obsession with GDP as a measure for a country’s well-being once more proved to be a poor proxy. Even longevity is only one of the factors we should be interested in. After all, the questions we ought to ask ourselves is if we are having a good life and not if we are wealthy. Data implies that they are not equivalent.

This article was written as part of a regular column by Christian Prokopp for the daily online newspaper.

Related story: Hartals drain Bangladesh’s potential

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