Getting Better

Getting Better, by Charles Kenny, Basic Books, RRP£15.99, 256 pages

In the late 19th century Queen Victoria, despite wielding the wealth and power of an empire that ruled a quarter of humanity, lost a daughter and granddaughter to diphtheria. In 2011, you can buy a 10-dose pack of diphtheria vaccine for $15, and your inoculation will be as good as that of the current Queen of England. Thus does life, or at least its preservation, become cheaper.

Getting Better, an intriguing book by Charles Kenny, an economist currently on leave from the World Bank, shows that there is more to life than GDP. The gap between the income of the world’s richest and poorest may widen but their respective qualities of life – measured by infant mortality, life expectancy, education, the ability to communicate, civil rights, freedom from violence – have converged.

Economists of development such as Amartya Sen have long emphasised the difference between narrow indices of income and wider measures of well-being. But Kenny has done a valuable job in this detailed synthesis of the facts.

The book’s first chapters are a brisk canter through the known unknowns of the study of economic development. Kenny emphasises how little we can prove about the effect of aid on economic growth, and the difficulty of transplanting governmental and legal institutions into developing countries from outside.

He really gets going with an analysis of how new technologies have cut the price of quality of life, enabling billions to escape the Malthusian trap whereby higher population meant poorer people. It is the result of disseminating improvements that to rich countries are boringly familiar: clean water, vaccination, hand-washing, sugar-and-salt solutions for diarrhoea. Yet the achievements are striking. Vietnam has just reached the average income that Britain enjoyed in the early 19th century, yet modern Vietnamese are 95 per cent literate against 69 per cent of Britons at that time and have a life expectancy of 69 compared with 41.

Richer countries still generally have a better quality of life, but the parameter determining welfare as a function of income has fallen over time. Even poor countries without growth can benefit from the products of development in the rich world. Apart from importing new technologies such as cellphones and vaccines, labour migration enables such countries to tap directly into growth elsewhere. Kenny brings up the case of Kerala, the Indian state that has high life expectancy and literacy. In fact, its hostile attitude to private enterprise means its social welfare miracle relies on remittances sent back by Keralan software engineers working in more conventionally wealthy countries.

Wisely humble, Kenny is keener on pointing out the facts rather than drawing strong policy conclusions. Still, he does toss out a couple of intriguing ideas. One is that Big Government seems to be good for quality of life; the role of the state routinely rises as countries become better off – though attempts to impose better governance from outside frequently fail. Aid donors could focus more on new technologies for developing countries than on institutional reform, and on financing conditional cash transfer programmes that reward families who get their children vaccinated or send them to school.

Getting Better seems likely to become a canonical addition to the development literature. It sets out a manageable thesis, argues it vigorously and with optimism, realism and humility – a refreshing combination in any field, and particularly one like international development, too often marked by hubristic confidence or histrionic despair.

Alan Beattie is the FT’s international economy editor

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