May 22, 2011

Sunday book review: "Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding" by Charles Kenny

Bill Gates brings the good news in the book:
Mr. Kenny acknowledges that the hundreds of billions of dollars that the West has poured into poor countries has had a limited impact on income, which is what most economists use to measure progress in living standards. As he notes, many countries in Africa today have real per capita incomes lower than that of Britain at the time of the Roman Empire. Over the past several decades, through good times and bad, the income gap between rich and poor countries has grown. And no one really knows why.
But income is only one measure of success and maybe not the most meaningful one. Mr. Kenny shows that quality of life—even in the world's poorest countries—has improved dramatically over the past several decades, far more than most people realize. Moreover, with reams of solid data to support his case, he argues that governments and aid agencies have played an important role in this progress.
We care about income mostly as a proxy for what money can buy: food, shelter, health, education, security and other factors that contribute to human well-being. Mr. Kenny's great insight is to point out the flaw in focusing solely on income. Other trends, related to direct measures of quality of life, are much more encouraging.
Fifty years ago, more than half the world's population struggled with getting enough daily calories. By the 1990s, this figure was below 10%. Famine affected less than three-tenths of 1% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa from 1990 to 2005. As Mr. Kenny suggests, the record has thoroughly disproved Malthusian prophecies of food shortages caused by spiraling population growth. Family sizes have fallen for many decades now in every region, including Africa.
And there's more good news. Virtually everywhere, infant mortality is down and life expectancy is up. In Africa, life expectancy has increased by 10 years since 1960, despite the continent's HIV pandemic. Nearly 90% of the world's children are now enrolled in primary schools, compared with less than half in 1950. Literacy rates in the sub-Saharan region have more than doubled since 1970. Political and civil rights also have gained ground.
What's more, the book suggests ways to make aid more efficient and effective. Mr. Kenny notes that dramatic improvements in quality of life have been achieved even in poor countries where incomes have fallen. How can this be? He credits the spread of new technologies and ideas. Because of them, as he writes, many of "the best things in life are cheap."
The book.

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