Why the world is getting better

Incomes haven't improved everywhere over the last 20-30 years. But quality of life has improved everywhere, argues researcher and journalist Charles Kenny.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
A man smiles at a fishing camp on the western shore of Lake Turkana near the Kenya-Ethiopia border in northern Kenya.

Amid the swathe of spectators who harp on the failures of global development stands one economist who begs to differ: Charles Kenny.

Kenny argues that global development is actually succeeding – and he has the data to prove it.

A senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, columnist for BusinessWeek, and contributing editor to Foreign Policy, Kenny spent more than 20 years researching growth patterns as a researcher for the World Bank.

His conclusion? Income isn’t a catch-all mechanism that explains why certain countries lag behind others. But we can clearly see things are getting better.

Global Envision: Can you share a little bit about your professional background - what led to your role at the Center for Global Development?

Charles Kenny: In the early 1990s I went straight from graduate school to working at the World Bank, researching infrastructure, telecommunications, and the causes of growth. That became my primary interest. This was back in a time when Africa was seeing particularly poor economic growth while being surpassed by countries that were once considered to be struggling on a similar level. So why was the majority of sub-Saharan Africa lagging behind?

We usually think of economic growth as being a good measure of everything. And yes, it’s important because it shows the choices people are making – whether they have to choose between eating and buying books. But it isn’t everything.

What’s the story with income? What’s the story with other measures of life? And why are they not as closely connected as we usually think? These questions are exactly what sparked my research and book, called “Getting Better,” which argues against the idea that things are getting worse but rather underlines signs of widespread improvements from health to education. That made me interested in spreading the word and was one of the reasons I left the World Bank.

I became more interested in the idea of trying to influence the development process and how to make the world a better place. The Center for Global Development is all about that – influencing aid, trade, migration, technology, and environmental policies. How rich countries affect poor countries.

GE: Can you explain a little about your research process for “Getting Better"? What made you veer on the side of optimism?

CK: Look, income hasn't improved everywhere over the last 20-30 years. But quality of life has improved everywhere. We’ve seen countries that were further behind catching up with countries that were further along. What’s behind that? I started by looking at the data – rom the strength of government institutions to how many girls make it through primary school.

Even countries that haven’t been seeing terribly strong economic growth have made fantastic progress on quality of life. To me, that showed that looking at progress exclusively through the lens of income isn’t an effective means of measuring progress.

GE: What do you say to the naysayers who insist that things aren’t getting better?

CK: You’re right to be concerned, and while I believe that, the data is massively supportive of the thesis that the world is getting better. Yes, challenges like child mortality and polio still exist, but we know how to combat them. And every year we’re getting better at utilizing the tools we have to tackle these issues. 

GE: You emphasize the need for a more multi-layered approach towards understanding growth. Should we do away with traditional methods that use economic proxies, like GDP, in favor of others that focus more on social progress, like the Social Progress Index?

I want to emphasize that income does really matter. Very poor people can’t afford to buy stuff they really need. People do value income. But if we’re going to have a broad measure of the quality of life, income isn’t all that matters. Things like the Millennium Development Goals are a global response saying the same thing. We need to consider factors like infant mortality, the environment, public health.

GE: What do you think is one of the most effective ways we can end abject poverty by 2030 – and what would we be trading off to choose that route?

CK: If I was president of the planet tomorrow and I could make one policy, it would be to open borders to people. It’s a really strange world we live in at the moment. Where you’re born is by far the biggest determinant of how your life is going to turn out. Even if you’re born into poverty in the U.S., you’re not living under $1 a day. But why should geography determine rich or poor?

I think we can try to equalize opportunity across geography. But we can also allow people to move somewhere where their chances are better. It’s not so crazy – one of the reasons I love the U.S. is that immigration policy in this country is comparatively very generous.

My real hope for the world I live in when I’m 80 or 90: The idea that where you’re born should affect your life quality is something that will be unacceptable.

Get tickets to hear Charles Kenny speak at Mercy Corps Oct. 9. Follow Charles Kenny on Twitter.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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