Charles Kenny: We may not know everything about how development works, but we know enough to get started.
First off, my heartfelt thanks to the participants in this book club -- it is an honor to share this space with you and there has been an immense amount to think about in your posts. Second, apologies to all that I'll not even try to respond to everything that has been said -- there's too much to mull over. But a few thoughts and responses about the environment, the variation in global progress, and the role of money:
Jeni and Brad both argue that I don't spend enough time thinking about the global environment, and Felix raises the issue, too. That's surely true: Getting Better does suggest that neo-Malthusians might have a point -- certainly we seem to be using up fossil fuels, aquifers, metals, and even helium in a manner that we can't sustain. The book also notes that carbon dioxide output is one of the few "quality of life" indicators which really does track very closely with income growth. That, and the fact that doubling the incomes of the world's poorest 650 million would take the same amount of money as adding one percent to the incomes of the richest 650 million, suggests where the solution to our global environmental challenges rests: changing behaviors among rich people. Not least, we should be pricing carbon and water -- and helium -- to reflect their costs.
I am enough of an optimist, however, to think that even if we didn't respond to climate change, positive trends might well continue. That's based in part on the fact that even those economists like Nick Stern who are the strongest proponents of tackling green house gas emissions use models that suggest rapid income growth into the future even in the poorest countries. And in part it reflects recent studies like this May 2010 analysis in Nature which suggests the positive impact of malaria eradication efforts are considerably larger than the potential negative effects of climate change-induced malaria spread.
But that we might continue to see progress in human quality of life even the face of climate change, doesn't change the fact that we'd surely see a lot more if we tackled the greenhouse gas issue today. And we wouldn't lose so much natural beauty that we we'll never get back. I hope I'll spend chunks of my retirement in 25 years scuba diving with my daughters to see the real Nemo. Not so much if all of the coral has died off thanks to ocean acidification. So climate change and sustainability concerns more broadly are issues that I certainly didn't intend to downplay.
Brad and Jeni are also concerned that I downplay variation in outcomes -- "the observation that things are ‘getting better' overall can obscure a lot of nastiness at a micro level," as Brad writes. And Jeni adds that "good things don't always come together." There is variation in outcomes. The immense tragedy of AIDS, for example, is that it stalled (or worse) progress in health indicators for a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa for over 15 years. Nonetheless, progress has been remarkably widespread. Even the areas worst hit by the AIDS epidemic have continued to see declining infant mortality, for example. Literacy has been going up everywhere -- even progress on democratization has reached every continent. And in that regard, I'd suggest there is another lesson from the Middle East and North Africa of late. Jeni argues that the last 30 years have shown you can have immense progress in education and health without moves towards democracy. I'd agree, but add that recent events suggest the caveat "for a while …"
Jeni and Garett also suggest that I downplay continued income divergence -- and the chapter on that ("The Bad News") is indeed one of the shortest in the book. That's in part because I don't think income matters as much as it used to -- a bunch of countries have seen negative growth over the past decades and have still racked up broad-based improvements in the quality of life. Nonetheless, people living on $1.25 a day need a lot more income. The good news here is that there are only 700 million of those people today, down from 1.9 billion in 1981. And even Africa has been seeing some fairly rapid growth over the last decade.
When it comes to the challenge of income poverty, Felix worries that "if you walked around Africa with a truckload of envelopes filled with 20 $100 bills apiece and handed them out to every single person in every single country, the result would obviously be disaster." Actually, I think that would be a great thing to do! It is called the helicopter drop in development effectiveness circles. Would we be better off just giving the money to intended beneficiaries rather than trying to build schools, roads or hospitals, or fund the technical assistance to set up a new regulator? I think available evidence suggests the answer to that question is "yes, sometimes." Look at all the material in the almost perfectly titled book Just Give Money to the Poor. (Almost perfectly titled because I wish Bob Geldof had been a co-author -- the book cover would be a brilliant place for the judicious use of his favorite expletive).
Of course I have to agree with Felix's broader point -- it takes more than money for broad-based development. That is, after all, a theme of the book. And again, at least in the case of income growth -- and probably broader institutional change as well -- it is clear that it involves an immensely complex and messy process about which we understand surprisingly little.
But I'd still argue with Felix about the broader point that we don't properly understand any of the causal chains behind the world getting better. Handwashing, or breast feeding, or the idea that you ought to send your daughters to school, or that the police shouldn't beat up peaceful protestors, are not terribly complex. I think the spread of these ideas has been hugely important to improvements in the quality of life. And even with regard to income, we do actually know of a pretty foolproof way to make people from poor countries far richer. Garett points it out: let them move to rich countries.
So, revisiting Getting Better's conclusions again after this discussion, I wish I'd hounded harder on rich countries about migration and the environment, and also made the proposal that "if you are worried about income, try throwing money at the problem." But of course I'd still want you to start by throwing money at my book. Thanks again to Felix, Jeni, Garett, and Brad.
Charles Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. "The Optimist," his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly.