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Getting Better, By Charles Kenny (A Review)

The economics of underdevelopment is big business. Books increasingly litter our shelves advising donors and poor governments alike on the best way to address the blight of global poverty. It is usually the case that the more negative and radical the message, the more the book sells. In recent memory we have become accustomed to negative views of the current state of global development, perhaps best exemplified by such pejorative phrases as “bottom billion”, “global south”, “new age primitivity"  and, most recently ,“dead aid”.

An underlying narrative in many of these books is that current development policies are not working and something more radical is needed. Some extreme voices have even urged aid freezes to break perpetual dependency on foreign aid. Charles Kenny’s Getting Better is a refreshing departure from the current pessimism and offers a more grounded perspective on global development.

According to Kenny despite many negative assessments, the developing world is making substantial progress. Rich countries may be getting richer faster than poor countries and though narrowing such income inequalities remains elusive, the developing world is not stuck in the Malthusian nightmare of ever growing and unsupportable population, with little to live on. Instead, things are getting better with those countries with the lowest quality of life making the fastest progress in improving it – across a range of quality of life measures. This progress is the result of global spread of technologies and ideas e.g. vaccinations, girl child education.

This progress appears to have been ignored by leading development critics because existing approaches to understanding progress in the developing has narrowly focused on income growth and ignored broader changes in quality of life. There’s certainly “bad news” in terms of growing divergence in income across countries accompanied by the elusive quest to understand the causes of economic growth. However, even if one believes that income is the primary force behind improvements in quality of life, we simply know very little about what makes countries grow.

Existing explanations for African underdevelopment, ranging from historical factors to aid dependency have not yielded effective solutions on how best to move Africa forward. Taking the much trumpeted East Asia model for development, as an example, Kenny painfully concludes that there is little agreement on what the East Asia model is, and even less hope that it can be easily replicated elsewhere. In short, the current pre-occupation is not only incomplete, but it is also a dead end in terms of coming up with appropriate policy prescriptions.

Crucially, economic growth is not the same as development as demonstrated by the disparity between slagging incomes and substantial progress being made on crucial areas of development, as broadly understood. The world is a far better place to live in today than ever it was in the middle of the last century or the century before that. Children born in the developing world today are far more likely to survive to old age than those born fifty years ago. They are also more likely to be educated, especially for girls. In both relative and absolute terms, life in developing world is much better today than it was in the past.

More remarkable is that getting quality of life is increasingly becoming cheaper. New technologies and ideas have considerably reduced the cost of improving quality of life. Many poor regions are making substantial improvements in life expectancy and education at minimal costs. Historical comparisons of countries and people with same income reveal markedly different outcomes in terms of quality of life and demonstrate the powerful notion that there’s considerably more to quality of life than money. That is because "the power of wealth to make a difference to quality of life depends hugely on the circumstance in which its owners find themselves". The poor today are benefiting from huge spread in cheap technologies and vast wealth of ideas.

The implication of these lessons is that there’s greater need to focus the development discourse away from preoccupation with income to quality of life. There’s a great opportunity for developing country governments to considerably improve the quality of life at minimal cost due to new technologies. What is needed is an improved focused on delivering services efficiently. For example, in health, governments should focus on the spread of cheap lifesaving habits and techniques. In education, there’s greater need to harness innovative ideas like “supplier payments for increasing the number of students graduating”. Similarly, targeted incentives in areas of civil rights could support progress in quality of life.

In all of these areas, the international community has a role to play to help accelerate the worldwide trend toward progress in quality of life, as well as minimising the size and frequency of retrogressive steps. These roles include support to create technologies than can further improve the quality of life at a given income as well as support of the spread of ideas and institutions that underpin health, education and rights. The poor will still need some level of income support, and therefore packages should be appropriately developed that makes aid support conditional on improvement in quality of life measures. This calls for innovative thinking with an eye on appropriate incentive structures e.g. conditional payments for school places delivered. It also means the global community need to continue pursuing trade policies which facilitate a much fairer and just world.

To be sure like any book Getting Better has its own imperfections. For example, though convincing evidence is presented for the importance of quality of life, it does not contain sufficient nuances on the complexity of the “quality of life” notion. The concept of quality of life is a nebulous idea that may well vary from place to place. What you regard as life-enhancing may differ from the person next to you. This in effect makes it difficult to make definitive statements not only on how much progress has been made but also on where quality of life fits in with local understanding of development and how such development is to be achieved. What society values may differ across cultures and space, and therefore a local approach is necessary. In short, Charles Kenny's approach therefore remains unfortunately western-centric. Similarly, there are one or two places where the evidence appears selective. Comparisons over time for example vary with respect to the point the author wishes to make which makes placing weight on the evidence presented challenging.

However, these concerns do not distract from the general powerful message of the book that we can be optimistic about the progress the world is making in improve quality of life. Both the future and the present look bright, with space to do more. It is that progress which we need to build on to ensure a better conditions of living for the world's poorest. In the midst of negativity, Charles Kenny’s Getting Better provides a bold and refreshing vision for how we can build on existing substantial progress.

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2013

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