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Development Expert Offers Dose of Counterintuitive Optimism

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Charles Kenny is out to prove that things aren't as bad as they seem.

The developing world is typically framed as a land of misery and woe, with hundreds of millions of unlucky citizens in nations from Somalia to Haiti to Burma scraping by on dollars a day, if that, or just struggling to feed themselves.

The tragedies are true enough, but to Kenny, they are only a part of the story.

Kenny, currently a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, was a longtime development expert at the World Bank, where he worked on everything from compiling the institution's World Development Reports to consulting with governments on telecom competition.

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Photo: New America Foundation
Charles Kenny

His work at the World Bank also sent Kenny on long deployments to Afghanistan and various countries in Africa. He saw the hotspots of global poverty up close and came to believe that the picture was far muddier than the prevailing narrative of unchecked wretchedness. The truth is that while citizens of the undeveloped world remain burdened by low incomes that aren't growing nearly fast enough, most poor countries, even those unable to escape the so-called poverty trap, are constantly improving. Fewer babies are dying, literacy rates are higher than ever before, girls are going to school, and erstwhile scourges of the developing world like polio have been all but eradicated.

So since 2010, Kenny has been making his case for a more nuanced take on the developing world in a regular column for Foreign Policy and in a 2011 book called "Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding – And How We Can Improve the World Even More."

As Kenny writes in the "Getting Better" intro, "Despite counterclaims and hand wringing, things are getting better, everywhere.... [T]hose countries with the lowest quality of life are making the fastest progress in improving it — across a range of measures including health, education, and civil and political liberties."

Kenny backs that claim up with a bevy of statistics over the course of almost 200 pages. For instance: Between 1974 and 2000, the immunization rate for six diseases increased from 5 percent to 80 percent of the world's newborns. Or another illustration: In 1900, the average level of education in undeveloped countries was roughly 1/40th of the level for the wealthiest nations; in 2000, the proportion was just one quarter.

So why does such a sense of futility prevail? Much of the problem, Kenny argues, stems from the limitations of the most basic statistic in development economics: per-capita gross domestic product. Of course, no statistic is perfect, but per-capita GDP has grown quite common as a shorthand formulation for national well being. From a certain standpoint, it makes sense: Income reflects a person's capacity to buy the goods and services we typically associate with a prosperous existence.

But such a measure of income ignores a large number of factors in living standards and feeds the dystopian narrative of the rich countries moving ever onward while poor regions lag behind.

"Just looking at income is a terribly narrow way of looking at global progress," Kenny told The Washington Diplomat. "You've really got to look at a bunch of other things too in order to properly measure."

Furthermore, he says that comparing incomes across different eras and regions confuses more than it enlightens. For instance, saying that today's Vietnamese have the same incomes as 19th-century Englishmen is inherently problematic, because a wealth of products — from antibiotics to the iPod —are readily available in many parts of the world today that didn't exist 150 years ago.

Per-capita GDP though is a simple figure easily understood not only by academic economists, but by untrained politicians and regular voters as well. This makes income a very convenient conceptual tool, notwithstanding its limitations, and efforts to broaden our notions of development would be greatly aided by a similarly easy-to-use substitute.

So what does Kenny propose in its place? "My first and unsatisfactory answer is, life's just more complicated than that," he said. "The second thing is life — how long people live is an awfully good measure. It's really hard to enjoy your yacht and your mansion if you're dead. Life expectancy is a pretty good ultimate measure. And it's one that tells a dramatically different story."

Kenny also points out that experts have long been searching for the key to economic growth and equality, but have never found a convincing answer — and they probably never will. "What's the answer to growth? We'll never know," he admits.

But there are still plenty of reasons for optimism around the world and ways to build on improvements, a guiding principle of Kenny's work.

"[M]y reading of the past 100 years is that there is a lot less suffering now than there used to be, and that we've overcome some immense challenges to achieve that," he said. "That's what gives me hope that we'll make further progress in the future."

This positive attitude is also evident in his Foreign Policy column titled, appropriately enough, "The Optimist." Here, the perennial optimist often flips conventional wisdom on its head, with intriguing takes on topics ranging from income inequality to the links between conflict and extreme weather, with the ultimate message usually paralleling the thesis of his book: The world is not going to hell in a hand-basket.

One of the pieces he wrote for the magazine, titled "Best. Decade. Ever," focused on the last 10 years as the "Naughty Aughties," which you may remember with something less than fondness as the decade of the Iraq War, Darfur and the global financial meltdown, among other seminal events. But while the period from 2001-10 doesn't inspire warm, fuzzy memories, Kenny says the negative headlines mask a great deal of progress in the developing world. Among the tremendous gains: average worldwide incomes are at their highest levels ever, agricultural productivity is climbing, telecommunications is spreading, infectious diseases are being curbed, and conflicts are on the wane. On the whole, people's lives are better off today than they ever were in history.

As "Best. Decade. Ever" suggests, Kenny's Foreign Policy column tends toward the counterintuitive. Recent columns have argued that China's rise is good for the United States, while a decline in U.S. imperial overreach is also good for Americans, redirecting resources back toward the home front, from high-speed rail lines to better health care.

He argues that modern-day famine is mostly the result of poor governance and should be prosecuted as a crime against humanity. In "Got Cheap Milk?" he outlined why consumers' preference for organic foods is "positively terrible" for the world's poor, debunking common myths that locally grown foods are necessarily better for the environment. Just the opposite, Kenny intricately explains: "For example, it is twice as energy efficient for people in Britain to eat dairy products from New Zealand than from domestic producers," he writes. "That's because transporting the final product accounts for only a small part of the energy consumed in the production and delivery of food. It's far better to eat foods from places where production itself is more efficient. For example, New Zealand cattle eat clover from the fields while British livestock tend to rely on feed — which itself is often imported."

And he argues that contrary to popular belief about growing global populations, the more people around the world the merrier. Kenny points out that suicide remains relatively rare around the world, and that even in poor countries like Bangladesh, an overwhelming number of people suggest they are happy. "Simply put, having the opportunity to be alive is a good thing, and the more such opportunity exists, the better," he says, noting that U.N. projections show average worldwide life expectancy will rise from around 68 years today to 81 in 2100, "so we'll all have a little bit longer to enjoy it."

But what about exploding populations exacerbating already-stressed resources? That's the crux of the dilemma, Kenny says, but only from the viewpoint of certain populations.

"It is growing consumption per person that is the problem," he contends. "The blame lies with wealthy countries that do nearly all of the consuming. The poorest 650 million people on the planet live on about 1 percent of the income of the richest 650 million. Each year, we add 1 percent or more to the incomes of those richest people — GDP per-capita growth rates in wealthy countries are at least that high. And that 1 percent growth has the same impact on global consumption as would doubling the number of people living on the income of that bottom 650 million of the world's population. So, those people sitting in rich countries pontificating on unsustainable global populations might want to start off with the bit of that population they see in the mirror every morning."

Kenny says that his time at the Washington-based Center for Global Development has given him greater insight into a plethora of different topics. "What's amazing about it is that there are people who know a lot about pretty much everything," he said.

He added that the interaction with the resident experts has had an important impact on his writing. "I write this weekly column for Foreign Policy, and most of the ideas come from discussions in the hallways," he said. "I wrote ["Getting Better"] before I arrived here, but the book has grown legs because of being here. I continue having discussions around it and feeding off new ideas because of this place."

While "Getting Better" spends most of its words explaining why things aren't that bad, it also dedicates space to recommendations on how they can get even better. In Kenny's estimation, a big part of the equation is immigration. "It's an incredibly powerful tool for development," he said. "It's definitely a net positive for the United States. It is certainly a net positive for the people migrating; it is certainly a net positive for the countries they leave behind."

In fact, Kenny is not particularly worried about the effects of the phenomenon known as brain drain, in which, according to the criticism, higher salaries in developed countries entice the most talented citizens of poorer nations to leave their homelands. This, in turn, handicaps the underdeveloped nations by depriving them of their most capable minds.

But Kenny argues this complaint overlooks all the good that comes to the nations on both sides of an immigration pipeline. "Doubling the number of people who have migrated between two countries raises trade between those countries by 10 percent," he recently wrote. "And if the number of skilled immigrants doubles in a recipient country, subsequent foreign direct investment to their countries of origin climbs 25 percent."

Many in the developed world, from Republicans in Arizona to France's far-right National Front, are a bit less sanguine about the economic benefits of immigration. Both sides of the debate can cite their favorite studies that back up their claims, but according to Kenny, the weight of the evidence points to a very slight impact on wages, which leads him to conclude that the virulent hostility toward immigration is motivated by other factors.

"There's no economic reason why migration causes this level of angst, [but] there are social reasons," Kenny said. "It's a natural tendency in people when something goes wrong to look for somebody to blame. And migrants are a group that are sometimes at least reasonably identifiable as different, so it's easy to group them, and blame them. Thankfully, that's something that is happening less with race and less with religion, but is still happening far too much with migration. I can only hope, and I assume, that over time that will drop down. One of the reasons for thinking that is when people in countries see that this stuff works, it becomes less of an issue over time."

Kenny is somewhat less positive about another of the most controversial topics in development: foreign aid. Advocates say that drastically increased levels of foreign aid could be the key to unlocking the potential of developing economies, but Kenny, true to unorthodox form, is not convinced.

"The evidence on what aid has done for GDP growth is mixed," he said. "It's certainly not what we had hoped. It is at the very least very contextual."

This skepticism puts Kenny in the camp of aid pessimists, the most famous of them being William Easterly, with whom Kenny worked at the World Bank. However, as in his book, Kenny draws a distinction between income and economic growth on the one hand and living standards on the other. When he discusses assistance independently from growth, Kenny is far more positive.

"I definitely think that aid has had an impact on health and education," he said. "Smallpox was eradicated with the help of a lot of aid money. Polio went down to a few hundred cases a year, and that's got quite a lot to do with the Rotary Club over the last 30 years, which did incredible work.... The money, the time, the attention that these people put in the issue has had a massive effect."

To that end, Kenny said he'd like to see a significant increase in governmental aid budgets, as unlikely as it seems in today's bleak economic climate. The U.N. target for foreign aid from developed nations is 0.7 percent of GDP, but currently just five nations reach that benchmark. The United States devotes less than 0.2 percent of its budget to foreign aid — which accounts for less than 1 percent of total government spending. While most wealthy nations do better, none of the largest developed nations spend even 0.5 percent of their economy on aid. And with budget pressures rising, the U.S. figure is likely to drop further in the not-too-distant future.

So given the constraints, how does one make the case for greater spending on other nations? While he is under no illusions, Kenny does have an idea for how to frame the argument. "If you poll people in the United States or Britain, and doubtless other places as well, and you ask them, 'Do we have a moral responsibility to help people who are living in poverty all over the world?' — 80 or 90 percent say yes. You then say, 'Are you in favor of providing more aid?' People don't want to spend more on aid; they want to spend less.

"We should be playing not to people's self interest. I would play to the moral argument more. And the second thing is I would say, 'Oh by the way, this has really worked,'" he added, noting that this moral duty also has practical dimensions, with assistance being far cheaper than propping up failed states after the fact or large-scale military interventions.

But more important than boosting the size of the budget is improving the way the money is spent. Kenny laments that most aid is tied to purchasing goods and services in the donor nation, often resulting in an expensive, slow-moving bureaucracy.

"At the moment, U.S. food aid has to be bought from U.S. farmers; it has to be [mostly transported on] U.S. ships. If you have a famine in Somalia, the closest place to get food is not Baltimore," he said. "As corn is a global market, if you buy the food anywhere, you will be raising the price of corn, and that will help U.S. farmers, if that's what you are interested in."

Likewise, intellectual property rights, taken too far, can strangle aid delivery. "Pharmaceutical companies need to make money, and pharmaceutical companies are the ones producing these pharmaceuticals that are saving millions of lives, so it's a delicate balance here. But some of these things have gotten ridiculous. You have U.S. government representatives running around very poor developing countries, complaining that U.S.-authored textbooks are being photocopied in primary schools in Laos," Kenny said. "The whole intellectual property rights regime has gone loopy."

He adds that developed nations can exponentially help poor nations just by adjusting domestic policies, notably loosening barriers to trade. "Divert just four years' worth of EU agricultural subsidies to pay off pretty much all of Greece's public debt, and we could stave off a second global financial crisis while helping some of the world's poorest people all at the same time," he proposed in one article.

While "Getting Better" is not an overtly political book, Kenny doesn't shy away from discussing the spread of liberalism, both as an informal system of norms and a formal one of democratic politics. As he notes, much of the progress in the developing world has been accompanied by the spread of liberal democracy and other Western social values. "There does seem to be somewhat of a convergence in global values toward, for lack of a better word, liberal ones. Sorry, I wish I could be more complicated, but I think that's just a good thing."

He adds: "I'm hopeful at least that in 2050 we'll have a planet where, as is true today, more of the world than even before is democratic, more of the world than even before is literate, more of the world than even before is at peace."


About the Author

Patrick Corcoran is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 12, 2014

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