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Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More

Author(s):Kenny, Charles
Reviewer(s):Garces-Voisenat, Juan-Pedro

Published by EH.NET (June 2011)

Charles Kenny, Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More. New York: Basic Books, 2011. x + 246 pp. $27 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-465-02015-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Juan-Pedro Garces-Voisenat, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

What is human progress about? If well-being could be measured simply by average income per person, this book could well be titled ?Getting Richer.? It is quite clear that the last two centuries have seen a widespread increase in income per capita across the globe, as has been well documented by Angus Maddison (2001) among others. Even the poorest countries? — with some notable exceptions — have managed to improve, however slowly, in this indicator. But the main point of Charles Kenny in his book is that improvements in the quality of life have surpassed the increase in income by far, particularly in poor countries. Advances in infant mortality, school enrollment, life expectancy and communications are taken almost for granted in developing countries with relatively low income per capita, but they show a level that could have not even been imagined by the currently rich countries back when they had that same income per capita, as Kenny points out.

So what is the cause for the worldwide outcry about poverty nowadays? Kenny seems to find it somewhat unjustified, even though he realizes that they are referring basically to relatively low income in poor countries. And this is the main reason for the universal concern: the income gap between rich and poor countries has been widening in recent decades. It is worth noting that this has happened mainly because the rich have got extremely rich, while the poorer ones have not managed to grow at the same pace. If you add to that the fact that modern communications have made the reality of poor countries more accessible to the general public, then the circle is complete. People all over the world have opened their eyes to the reality of poverty in less materially advanced countries. In ages past, the disparity in global standards of living was simply unknown and unheard of for the common people.

It is this focus on income that Kenny finds misleading. Income cannot account for many components of the standard of living, starting with those that are provided by public services (health, education, etc.). Is the author?s argument something novel in the literature? Not really. Almost thirty years ago, Amartya Sen (1983) had already written about this misleading focus, when he introduced his capabilities approach to development, which would later serve as a basis for the design of the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Program. The novelty of Kenny?s book is its factual character. All his arguments are backed by facts about the development experience of different countries. And this gives the book a certain liveliness which you rarely find in works about economic development.

In the first three chapters of the book, Kenny establishes the premises of his argument. He abounds on observations of the real world — especially developing countries — that tend to confirm the astonishing progress in standards of living throughout the world over the last century and a half or so; for example, some readers might be surprised to learn that life expectancy was lower in many countries of western Europe just over a century ago than it is today in most African countries. Kenny argues that this progress is due to the rapid spread of technologies and ideas. But he has to admit that, contrary to what could have been expected from the traditional Solow model of growth, there has been divergence in income per capita among rich and poor countries. There are many factors that could explain this, among which the difficult diffusion of process technologies — which greatly affect productivity — is one that particularly prevents convergence.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 are devoted to showing how the countries of the world are converging in every aspect of modern life but income. The ?good news? announced by Kenny is that the world has escaped the Malthusian trap of overpopulation. Rapid technological advance and diffusion have overcome the trap. If there is any constraint that modern civilization faces, adds the author, it is not given by the carrying capacity of the Earth (which he estimates rather whimsically at a little over 13 billion people) but rather by the consumption patterns of the more affluent societies. He sounds particularly witty in his message to social planners: ?Sterilize the world?s billionaires first, then move on to a one-child policy for Switzerland, Luxembourg and the United States? (p. 67). As for Africa, there is a trap, but it is a trap of institutional history, not of overpopulation.

Kenny has yet ?better news? to announce; levels of education and health are converging around the world; political and civil rights are converging; everything that matters for quality of life is being driven to convergence in the steady state of the Kenny model, where the equation of motion describes the effective growth (generation and diffusion) of technology and ideas, to put it –loosely speaking — in a Solow-model framework. Income is neither an endogenous nor an exogenous variable in this model, because ?the best things in life are cheap? (p. 93). And this is the ?great news?: income is not a necessary condition to achieve a high quality of life. There doesn?t seem to be a causal relation from growth in income to improvements in basic education and health, nor to an increase in civil and political rights, and not even to subjective happiness, according to modern surveys. The message is clear and hopeful: the patterns of consumption and pollution of richer countries are not the only way –not even the most desirable way — to ensure quality of life.

The rest of the book deals with policy recommendations to maintain the progress in quality of life for developing countries. Even though Kenny is, no doubt, a friend of the free market, he is not to be confused with a libertarian. He flirts with the idea that a big government might be a good thing for poor countries if it provides the basic services in health, education and those necessary to achieve full civil participation in society. And even though — according to him — convergence in quality of life seems almost guaranteed in our world today, there is still room for a policy agenda. In Kenny?s view, the government should be a provider of public goods, a facilitator of the diffusion of technology and ideas, an educator (through modern means of communication) and a protector of civil liberties.

Finally, the author tackles the issue of the responsibility of rich countries in the task of development. He espouses neither the view of Easterly (2006) — that foreign aid to poor countries does more harm than good — nor that of Sachs (2005) — who proposes a sort of gigantic bailout of poor countries by rich ones to achieve a messianic ?end of poverty.? For Kenny, aid can be helpful and efficient if delivered to small local communities rather than to national governments, especially when these lack the support of solid institutions. Aid should also be directed to specific projects of quality-of-life improvement. One specific way in which richer countries could help is to allow worker immigration from poor countries; the author presents some evidence of the benefits of such policy. One should add that such a policy is not only of help for poor countries but also very beneficial for the richer ones, which experience an acute ageing of their populations.

At the end of this book, the lay reader might wonder in a state of confusion: What is development? From an intellectual point of view, the book has presented a thesis and an antithesis, for which it has provided ample evidence. But it seems to lack a synthesis. Perhaps the purpose of the author is to stimulate the search for that synthesis. But it is more likely that he knows the job is already done. One feels inclined to paraphrase Sen in stating that development is basically freedom; freedom from material poverty, freedom from hunger, freedom from marginalization, freedom from harassment and freedom to be able to live a full life, one that satiates the most profound aspirations of the human soul. Quality of life might be a step in the right direction, provided it is not sold to poor countries as a package of predetermined patterns of consumption, as Kenny rightly warns us against.

All in all, Kenny?s work is a balanced and fair view of the state of development in the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is by no means a blind proclamation of the inevitable advent of terrestrial bliss. The author clearly states that there are many areas of development policy that need to be mended, not least those that impinge on the unequal distribution of world income. He is also conscious of the fact that the use of resources in the process of development requires some policy guidance and strict rules when the market is not able to solve the problems created by externalities, as it happens with global warming. But the central message remains a powerful and hopeful one: ?The success of development has been to reduce the cost and to spread the reach of the good life? (p. 111). May we enjoy it.


Easterly, W. (2006), The White Man?s Burden: Why the West?s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, New York: Penguin Press.

Maddison, A. (2001), The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, Paris: OECD.

Sachs, J. (2005), The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, New York: Penguin Press.

Sen, A. (1983). ?Development: Which Way Now?? Economic Journal, Vol. 93, Issue 372: 745-62

Juan-Pedro Garces-Voisenat is Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University.?? His most recent research explores the influence of education on institutional development and the measurement of the quality of education in developing countries, with particular reference to South America.? Email:

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII