Monday, September 21, 2009

The Success of Development

Countries in every region of the world, from the poorest to richest...have all seen improvements in average levels of health and education over the past century.
That is from a forthcoming book by Charles Kenny.  Based on Kenny's own summary, The Success of Development is a book that you will want to pre-order.  If the book delivers, it will help get us out of the rut we are currently in - namely the "there is no evidence that development aid works" rut.

According to Kenny, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that the divergence in incomes between the rich and poor countries has grown sharply since 1960.  Worse, we really don't understand how to increase economic growth rates in any country. But there is also really good news.  First, contrary to Malthus and Paul Ehrlich's expectations, there is not widespread starvation in the poor countries.  Even better, there have been dramatic improvements in health, education, and even political rights in most poor countries. 

The key insight of this book is that income appears to be a poor proxy for quality of life.  Fortunately, as Kenny says, many of "the best things in life are cheap....The last century has seen a dramatic decline in the cost of living."  The technologies and practices that reduce infant mortality, improve overall health, and increase literacy are relatively cheap. 

So the challenge for the development field is to create and environment that stimulate innovation and the spread of ideas that drive changes that improve the basic quality of life in different countries.   Unlike economic growth, which we have not had much luck stimulating, we have had some success in helping generate and spread these types of ideas, so there is grounds, Kenny says, for "realistic optimism."