FP Book Club: Charles Kenny’s Getting Better

An FP discussion on contributing editor Charles Kenny's new book: Are we winning the global war on human suffering?


For all of the violence, political instability, and environmental degradation in the modern world, FP Contributing Editor Charles Kenny believes that the story of human progress over the past half-century is, on balance, a happy one. In his new book Getting Better, Kenny argues that global development, the project of hauling the world’s least fortunate billions out of poverty, is succeeding: Though not every country is there yet, most people are living healthier, more prosperous lives than their parents and grandparents. We gathered some of our favorite policy experts and journalists who know a thing or two about the subjects Kenny tackles in his book — global poverty, economics, sustainability, and others — to weigh in on his big idea: Is it true that world is becoming, bit by bit, a better place?

Jeni Klugman: People are healthier and more prosperous than they used to be. But are they freer?

Garett Jones: The success of development is transforming the world’s politics, policies, and economies. Are we ready for it?

Bradford Plumer: Can things really be getting better for human beings if the planet they live on is getting worse?

Felix Salmon: Things really are getting better — but we don’t have the faintest idea why.

Charles Kenny: We may not know everything about how development works, but we know enough to get started.

Jeni Klugman: People are healthier and more prosperous than they used to be. But are they freer?

Hello everyone — this week we’ll be talking about Charles Kenny’s new book, Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding — and How We Can Improve the World Even More. It’s a subject of considerable interest to me — since 2008 I have had the honor (and daunting task) of directing the Human Development Report, an annual publication of the UNDP since 1990 — and Getting Better makes an important point about it: That the progress we’ve seen in global development over the past few decades is historically unprecedented, has happened faster in developing countries than in the more privileged parts of the world, and too often goes unrecognized amid the doom and gloom of the daily news. Kenny employs a whole range of examples to illustrate these major empirical findings in ways that make the story quite enthralling.

But Kenny is also quick to recognize that the picture is not all rose-colored, even while rejecting the conventional wisdom that development has failed. He has a whole chapter documenting the growing income disparities between the global rich and the global poor, noting that “the average rural Zambian will enjoy a lifetime income of about $10,000, compared to a lifetime income of around $4.5 million for the average resident of New York City.” He also reminds us of the failed search for a silver bullet for human development. In some cases the state and public provisions have played a major role; in other places, the market has been more important. Some countries have decentralized approaches, while others have relied significant upon development assistance. 

Rather than being overwhelmed by the economic malaise surrounding thinking about the state of global development, however, Kenny calls instead for recognition that people the world over have seen massive improvements in quality of life relative to their parents, and, that in short, the world is a better place today than it was 60 years ago. He wraps things up with a discussion of the innovations, ideas, and institutions that have helped drive this progress and with a resounding call to policymakers that “income growth should not come at the cost of other elements of quality of life.”

For the most part I agree with Kenny’s story here — in fact, we delivered a similar message in the UNDP’s 2010 Human Development Report (HDR), where we highlighted the fact that the past 20 years have seen dramatic improvements in key aspects of many people’s lives. Most people today are healthier, live longer, are more educated, and have greater access to goods and services than previous generations. And there has been progress in expanding people’s power to select leaders and to hold them accountable.

But the HDR, too, suggests that progress has been varied and diverse. It may be that Kenny pays too little attention to this variability of experience — average country performance has been impressive indeed, but there has been enormous diversity, and people in a few countries are actually worse off than 40 years ago in terms of the human development index (HDI), a composite measure of wellbeing based on education, health, and income.

Let’s compare Benin and Zimbabwe, countries that started at similar levels of HDI in 1970. But while a baby born in Cotonou, Benin today can expect to live 62 years, a baby born in Harare can expect to live only 47.  We also see striking contrasts between China and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which started together, in terms of the HDI levels, in 1970.  The pay of an average worker in China grew nearly 2000 percent over the subsequent 40 years, while in DRC, the average worker in 2010 made just one quarter of his 1970 income — a 75 percent decline! This suggests both that global forces have made progress more feasible for countries at all levels of development, but also that countries differ in whether, and how, they take advantage of the opportunities.

Even acknowledging, as Kenny points out, that some level of income growth has been reasonably widespread, it is hard to be optimistic about the reality that some poor countries have hardly grown at all, or about the fact that the fight against global income poverty has such a long way to go — for instance, that a “poor Indian’s income today is on par with English peasants’ income 600 years ago.”

But there are other aspects of the narrative that are much more optimistic, such as Kenny’s finding that economic growth and human development do not always coincide. This means that rapid sustained economic growth (which for so many countries has continued to be elusive) is not necessarily a requirement for improvements in other areas of human wellbeing — and that, in fact, “many of the services and treatments most necessary to increase quality of life are very cheap.” One only has to compare the Top ten HDI movers in last year’s HDR (see Chapter 2, which looks at changes in the composite index of education, health, and income) with the top ten in the Spence Commission‘s 2010 report on economic growth in the developing world to see that countries making great strides in non-income dimensions of human development are not always the same as those making the best progress in economic growth. In fact, only four of the Spence Commission’s success stories make it into the HDR list. What this shows is that progress in health and education can drive success in improving people’s lives even in the absence of growth.

While this overall progress in global development is worth celebrating, however, we do need to recognize that the sustainability of existing development paths is in question. The progress that has occurred in recent years has, of course, relied heavily on fossil fuels — we now know that this is unsustainable. And although challenges remain in measuring sustainability, it’s abundantly clear that as the world has become more prosperous it has also become less sustainable. How do we ensure continued and improved global progress follows a more sustainable path? That the needs of the future are not compromised by the way we are meeting our needs in the present?

Another less optimistic aspect of the picture, to which Kenny arguably pays too little attention, is that good things don’t always come together — in particular that it is possible for countries to excel in areas such as health and education, but at the same time to be unsustainable, undemocratic, and unequal. The Arab democracy paradox and the unprecedented spread of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world is a case in point. The progress of Arab countries in dimensions of human development is emphasised in the HDR. Five Middle Eastern and North African countries are among the top 10 in terms of improvements in the HDI — including Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, with Egypt not far below — with advances mainly due to significant improvements in health and education. Yet until very recently, at least, many governments in the region paid little more than lip service to the notions of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. This therefore raises the important question of how do we ensure global progress in terms of health, education, and living standards extend further, to encompass civil and political freedoms for all?

Jeni Klugman is the director and lead author of the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report.

Garett Jones: The success of development is transforming the world’s politics, policies, and economies. Are we ready for it?

The best things in life have always been free — and in the modern age, we have ever more of the best things. This is true for those of us in information-economy-driven rich countries, as my George Mason colleague Tyler Cowen notes in Age of the Infovore. But as Charles Kenny demonstrates in his fantastic new book Getting Better, it’s also true for developing countries — even the poorest among them. In both cases, politicians, policymakers, and economists nod, say “good point,” and move on: Yes, people are living longer, healthier, safer lives even in countries with awful economies; yes, the Internet makes it easy to enjoy global culture and social interaction at minimal cost. But so what? In fact, the implications of this shift for politics, policy, and economics are enormous — and several areas are particularly worth addressing:

Politics. The fact that a decent, civilized life can now be acquired with a small income matters for the simple reason that a small income may be all that hundreds of millions of people will ever have. Kenny himself treats the low productivity of sub-Saharan Africa — to which he devotes much of this book — as a nearly insoluble puzzle; and in the rich world, the combination of technology-driven inequality and voluntary Infovore-driven downshifting could mean relatively low incomes for hundreds of millions in the rich countries.

Of course, living on $2,000 per year — Kenny’s tentative estimate of the minimum needed for “many elements of the good life” — in a poor nation is a far different, far worse thing than sharing an apartment while waiting tables in a rich country. But for the political class, the similarities are more important than the differences. In both cases, citizens are moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, searching for meaning and community, forcing politicians into the conflict-laden culture wars that arise when citizens are no longer overly preoccupied with more basic wants. In both cases, the political class will find it difficult to generate much revenue on such a small tax base — after all, most countries tax “necessities” relatively lightly, and evasion is easy when making such small purchases. And in both cases, the political class is controlled by technological forces they lack the expertise to understand. Low-income, modestly satisfied voters will present new political challenges that are still poorly understood.

Technology and teams. Technology, broadly defined, also plays a big role in Kenny’s story of sub-Saharan African poverty. Kenny notes that many of the world’s best ideas — peace, education for women, public health care — are genuine technologies that have spread to many of the world’s poorest countries. These are technologies that cost little and generate little revenue directly, but that produce massive gains in long-run well-being.

Other technologies, however, have had a tougher time spreading to sub-Saharan Africa, most notably technologies that rely on team production. Kenny emphasizes this: he notes that the “inventory control systems and production management techniques” which generate so much productivity in the richest countries are little seen in the world’s poorest. And as ever-more cutting-edge production relies on team efforts — R&D is a corporate enterprise, and software, movies, and high finance are all team-driven — this failure to transfer technology holds Africa back. Kenny has drawn attention to an important, understudied fact of underdevelopment: Business management matters.

Barriers to the Good Life. It’s wonderful news that $2,000 per person might be enough to yield some version of a “good life.” But for hundreds of millions of Africans, $2,000 per year is $1,500 more per year than they have.  

If the rich countries are going to continue to restrict African immigration — a policy of geographic discrimination that causes vastly more economic damage than rich-country race and gender discrimination — and if they don’t want to transfer the half-trillion or so dollars per year it would cost to create a semblance of the good life within Africa, then a path to African economic decency will require higher African productivity. But massive emigration, greater transfers, and a productivity boom are all unlikely. So Africans will probably continue to build upon the same successes they have created in recent decades in health, education, infrastructure. In our bad-news-first world, these successes have received too little attention; let’s hope that Kenny’s book gives the pessimists pause. 

Garett Jones is BB&T professor for the study of capitalism at the Mercatus Center and a researcher at the Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University.

Bradford Plumer: Can things really be getting better for human beings if the planet they live on is getting worse?

Charles Kenny’s terrific new book, Getting Better, covers a wide range of global development issues: public health, education, democracy — it’s all in there. And Kenny makes a convincing case that the quality of life in poorer countries has improved greatly over the years — and will likely continue to improve — even if incomes in those countries remain stubbornly difficult to lift. And yet, there’s one topic that Kenny’s book touches on only glancingly: the environment.

After all, ecologists have been warning us for some time now that the environmental picture is assuredly not getting better. We’re consuming the Earth’s natural resources at an unsustainable rate, and humanity’s pushing up against some dangerous thresholds in the biosphere. We’re pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the air. The planet’s getting hotter. The oceans are acidifying. Forests are getting mowed down. Species are vanishing. Freshwater supplies are in peril. So, one might ask, isn’t this a good indication that things are going to get worse? What happens when countries like Tuvalu are underwater or rainfall patterns in Africa are disrupted by climate change? Disaster, right?

Except it’s not that simple — and this brings us to a paradox that various ecological experts have been struggling with for some time (and a topic that dovetails nicely with Kenny’s book). Last September, a team of researchers led by McGill’s Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne published a paper in BioScience that took note of the “environmentalist’s paradox.” The paradox goes like this: By most standard measures, the planet’s ecosystems have been in bad shape for awhile now — and that’s widely assumed to have unpleasant consequences for humanity, particularly for poorer nations. Yet, as Kenny notes, human well-being has never been better. Why is that?

One possible explanation, offered up by Raudsepp-Hearne and her colleagues, is that humanity isn’t really better off. Maybe all the ongoing environmental degradation is making our lives miserable and we just haven’t noticed it. For instance, natural disasters seem to be affecting more people than ever before. Yet, overall, this hypothesis is hard to take seriously — Getting Better offers ample evidence that life is getting better.

A second potential explanation for the paradox, also noted in the BioScience paper, is that, as far as human well-being is concerned, advances in food production have greatly outweighed any of the ecological damage we’ve wrought. Think about the Green Revolution. Yes, modern-day farming has led to the spread of chemicals everywhere, and yes, we seem to be disrupting the planet’s nitrogen cycle, and yes, humans have been depleting water tables-just read this piece on fears that a Dust Bowl may return to the southwestern United States once the Ogallala Aquifer runs dry. But the invention of artificial fertilizer and the development of high-yield crops have allowed the world to feed itself even as the global population has skyrocketed. As Kenny notes in Getting Better (and in a recent FP essay), technological innovation has so far allowed humanity to escape the dire consequences of population growth predicted by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus and his modern intellectual heirs. And that, one could argue, is what matters most.

A third explanation for the paradox? Maybe technology has simply made us less dependent on our surrounding ecosystems than most environmentalists tend to assume. Indeed, as Kenny argues in his book, there’s not much evidence that a country’s level of development hinges on having a favorable (or unfavorable) climate. It could just be that humans are really good at overcoming environmental disadvantages. We’ve learned to grow more crops on less land. We know how to desalinate water. We can shelter ourselves from heat waves. After the British chopped down all their forests, they simply developed another energy source — coal — without missing a beat. So it’s quite possible that technology will help us survive whatever future environmental apocalypses come our way.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that future environmental problems will be qualitatively different from the ones we’ve faced so far. Do we really have the technology to adapt to, say, massive ocean acidification — or the collapse of the world’s fishing stocks? That’s hardly a given. And that’s why Raudsepp-Hearne and her co-authors floated a fourth hypothesis — namely, that the worst effects of ecosystem degradation are yet to come. We’ve put a lot of carbon in the air, and it’s taking awhile for that to translate into a few degrees (or more) worth of temperature rise, but once that comes, things will get worse.

Then there’s a fifth explanation for the environmentalist’s paradox, which gets discussed in Matthew Kahn’s excellent book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive In A Hotter Future. Kahn points out that climate change is going to be a big problem that will cause a lot of suffering and misery. But, in all likelihood, overall well-being will continue to improve — in much the same way that, say, the Vietnam War caused a lot of death and destruction in Vietnam but had very little effect on the country’s long-term growth rates. In other words, the observation that things are “getting better” overall can obscure a lot of nastiness at a micro level.

So that’s the big question: Will global development keep improving if environmental degradation proceeds apace? What’s fascinating about the BioScience paper I mentioned earlier is that there’s a lot that researchers simply don’t know about the relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being. For now, human existence keeps improving in real and meaningful ways. But is that always going to be the case?

Bradford Plumer is an associate editor of the New Republic.

Felix Salmon: Things really are getting better — but we don’t have the faintest idea why.

In his wonderful book Getting Better, Charles Kenny does indeed peg $2,000 a year as the amount necessary to have a relatively decent life. But it’s a calculation which only works backwards: if you look at people with a relatively decent life, they tend to have at least $2,000 a year.

The same calculation doesn’t, however, work forwards. 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: quality of life would go down, not up.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem of development. When Garett Jones talks about “the half-trillion or so dollars per year it would cost to create a semblance of the good life within Africa,” he makes it seem easy, as though we have the expertise and are lacking only in cash. Armed with a budget of $500 billion per year, we could turn Africa into a continent of happy, comfortable people checking off Millennium Development Goals on their way to school — rather than, say, a vicious and bloody zone of rent-seeking politicians and warlords all trying to get their hands on as many of those billions as they could.

There’s also the question of who “we” are. We’re Foreign Policy readers, I guess: international policy wonks who know the difference between an MDB and an IFI. (Actually, can someone help me out on that one?) But one of the key messages of Kenny’s book is that development is not well understood, even at places like his alma mater, the World Bank. It happens in places where you least expect it, and it doesn’t happen — indeed, sometimes things get worse — in places where you put in the most effort and money.

So when Jeni Klugman ends her post by asking “the important question of how do we ensure global progress in terms of health, education, and living standards extend further, to encompass civil and political freedoms for all”, she’s biting off far more than anyone can chew: “We” can’t “ensure” anything at all. Certain individuals and organizations can do their best in certain countries, and will mostly but not always do more good than harm — not that it’s easy or even possible to measure either with any accuracy.

As Bradford Plumer notes, the main thing we’ve learned in recent decades is just how much we don’t know. There’s an enormous amount of uncertainty involved in looking forwards, especially when it comes to the fundamental resources of food, energy, and water. As Matt Ridley writes in his book The Rational Optimist, we’ve generally done well to date, by dint of technological advances and by finding new energy resources to exploit. But at the same time there’s no shortage of huge resource issues facing a growing world population that don’t seem to have any answers at all.

Charles Kenny has as sophisticated an understanding of what causes development and what hobbles it of anybody I can think of. But one of the lessons I’ve taken from this book is simply that the world is getting better, that it has developed impressively, especially in recent decades, and that the reasons why are so incredibly complex that they’re likely to remain largely intractable for the foreseeable future.

Planet Earth is the most complex system it is possible to imagine, with feedback loops and butterfly effects and myriad other indicia of unpredictability. We’re seeing impressive improvements in the human condition in most if not all of the world, and the base case scenario is that we’ll continue to see the same thing going forwards. Just don’t ask me why: any answer is extremely likely to be both unhelpful and facile.

Felix Salmon is the finance blogger at Reuters.

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, runs weekly.

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.