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The (surprisingly upbeat) state of the world

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The number of people living on less than $1.25 a day is projected to be 883 million in 2015, compared with 1.4 billion in 2005 and 1.8 billion in 1990, according World Bank statistics.

The outlook for developing countries to reduce hunger, enroll children in primary school, and reach a number of related UN-set benchmarks is similarly good.

"Their progress is much better than I expected," says Delfin Go, lead economist at the World Bank's Development Prospects Group.

Globally, women's lot is rising, both in absolute terms and relative to men. In developed countries there's an increased consensus supporting formal legal rights and guarantees of equality for women, says a World Bank report on the subject. In many – but not all – developing countries, more women are literate and their overall education level is catching up to men's levels.

Women now represent 40 percent of the world labor force, 43 percent of the global agricultural labor force, and more than half the world's university students. That's good both for the women themselves and their nations, according to Ana Revenga, codirector of the World Bank's World Development Report 2012, which focused on gender equality.

"In today's globalized world, countries that use the skills and talents of their women will have an advantage over those that don't," said Ms. Revenga when the report was released this fall.

Democracy faces a new dawn. For the first time in decades, the possibility exists that democracy will take full root in a region where it has had trouble growing: the Middle East.

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