The Success of Development

By Felix Salmon
June 15, 2009

I’ve been glued to my Kindle all day, reading Charles Kenny’s compelling and important new book, The Success of Development: Innovation, Ideas and the Global Standard of Living. Kenny is a great writer, and his book is a true pleasure to read; it’s also a crucial addition to a development literature which has gotten bogged down in debates which will never be satisfactorily resolved.

The Success of Development acts like a sword through many of the Gordian knots plaguing the development community, especially those surrounding the rate of economic growth in many developing countries. Put that question to one side, says Kenny, and suddenly a lot of much more interesting questions, about issues like education and healthcare and clean water and human rights, come into a lot more focus. And if you use those metrics, rather than GDP growth, to judge the success or failure of developing countries, then things look rather more optimistic than you might think.

Wonderfully, Kenny has made The Success of Development available as a free download from his website, so you have no excuse not to read it — or at least the short 5,600-word introductory chapter which lays out substantially all of the themes of the book. Here’s a taster:

Thousands of papers and articles attempting to divine the causes of long term economic growth around the world, testing hundreds of possible determinants, have produced results that are contradictory and inconclusive. Perhaps this isn‘t surprising given the heterogeneity of countries that have seen fast growth. Between 1929 and 1988, eight countries in the world managed to more than quadruple their per capita GDP: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Italy, Norway, Finland, Bulgaria and the USSR. It might be hard to come up with a single policy explanation which could account for rapid growth in all of these very different economic regimes…   

Related to this, looking at almost any measure of the quality of life except for income suggests ubiquitous improvement. The general picture is of rapid, historically unprecedented progress in quality of life –progress that has been faster in the developing world than the developed. This is true for measures covering health, education, civil and political rights, access to infrastructure and even beer production. Since 1960, global average infant mortality has more than halved, for example. Nine million children born in 2006 celebrated their first birthday who would have died before then if mortality rates had remained at their 1960 level. And the vast majority of those children lived in developing countries…

the proportion of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa affected by famine over the 1990-2005 period averaged less that three tenths of a percent. The proportion who were refugees in 2005 was five tenths of a percent. The number who died in wars 1965-2001 was one one-hundredth of a percent. These figures add up to stories of despair for many millions in Africa –but they remain stories of the small minority. For the rest, progress has been considerable. Take literacy, for example –the percentage of Sub-Saharan Africans who could read and write doubled over the period 1970-1999, from less than one in three to two thirds of the adult population… Between 1962 and 2002, life expectancy in the Middle East and North Africa increased from around 48 years to 69 years.

The biggest success of development has been in making the things that really matter – things like health and education—cheaper and more widely available… We do not appear that knowledgeable on the subject of increasing the speed of income growth, as we have seen. In contrast, we appear considerably better at improving the broader quality of life for everyone, at whatever income. A greater focus on proven approaches to more rapid improvement in health and education may have a significantly greater impact on the quality of life of poor people in poor countries than yet another quest for the grail of GDP growth.   

Kenny is soliciting feedback from anybody who downloads and reads the book; I very much hope that among that feedback will be an email from a literary agent who hopes to be able to place this book with a major publishing house who will put some serious effort into promoting it. Given the success of simplistic books on development by the likes of Jeffrey Sachs and Dambisa Moyo, this more subtle, more realistic, and much more readable book should by rights do really well commercially. And when it does, you can be one of those smug people saying that you read it back when it was a free download from blogs.com.

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