To ask someone with a CV like Charles Kenny’s about the current circumstances facing the average African family, “wholly undramatic” is not the answer one would typically expect. Yet Kenny—a former senior economist at the World Bank—opens his new book Getting Better in precisely this optimistic fashion.
He describes a hypothetical morning for a modern rural African family, where mosquito nets shield against malaria, mothers know the benefits of breastfeeding, children are inoculated against deadly disease, and girls can go to school.
Contrasting the traditional “crisis” view of African life as portrayed in news reports, infomercials and even by many in the development profession, Kenny depicts a world where in an average day, people are waking up to a life in which “Nobody gets sick, nobody gets shot, and nobody dies. Kids go off to school, and parents to work. They return to food on the table and a peaceful night.”
This undramatic characterization of modern African life is exactly what fascinates Kenny. “Its beauty is in its banality,” he says, “a sign of the considerable progress that African countries have made in extending a basic quality of life to ever more people.”
This is the thesis of Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding—and How We Can Improve the World Even More—that although poverty and injustice are still rampant across the developing world, quality of life for millions of people is getting better every day, in ways that were unimaginable only 50 years ago. That even though many people are still poor, they are no longer doomed to live in crisis and uncertainty.
In making his case, Kenny undertakes two separate yet equally important analyses: first, of the factors that affect economic growth, and second, of the factors that affect development, with the ultimate purpose of demonstrating that the two are not synonymous.
For Kenny, the answer to the question of economic growth “is not ‘investment’ or ‘trade’ or ‘education’ or ‘technology’ or any one ‘X’ at all. Instead, the answer is ‘It depends.’” Meaning that all countries are different, and growth depends largely on contextual factors—a country’s history, geography, and institutions, to name a few. “The universal policy prescriptions of dirigistes and interventionists suffer as much,” Kenny says, “as those of neoliberals and free marketeers at the hands of the historical record.”
While acknowledging the role that economic growth plays, Kenny argues that the main reason life is getting better is the spread of the “technologies of development,” namely ideas (like “girls should go to school”) and innovations (like vaccines for measles and polio). And even better, he argues, these technologies that are driving the good life are getting cheaper and spreading further all the time. Following Kenny’s argument, we should not completely despair the lack of growth in household income or GDP in much of the developing world, because “improvements in health, education, and security are what we want from development, while income is just a tool to help achieve them.”
Getting Better certainly paints a more optimistic picture of global development than most, but it isn’t without its caveats. Kenny highlights “the bad news” in the beginning of the book; global income inequality is growing, and even the experts have no idea what will truly cause economic growth. He also highlights how certain indicators of progress can be misleading.
For example, the dramatic increase in primary school enrollments in sub-Saharan Africa often belies the fact that enrollments do not necessarily equal a quality education. But overall, Kenny says, “the world appears to be a far better place to live in today than it was in the middle of the last century or in any century before that. And life has gotten better in particular for those who suffered the worst living conditions in 1950. This is evidence of considerable success in development.”
As a whole, Getting Better provides us a lens through which we can analyze any development text that claims to have all the answers. I had the pleasure of reading this book directly after finishing Dambisa Moyo’s anti-aid diatribe, Dead Aid. It proved a very helpful exercise to contrast Moyo’s self-assured conclusion—that Africa’s failure to spur economic growth is directly because of too much aid—with Kenny’s own argument: that there can be no self-assured conclusions as to what spurs economic growth, and that economic growth itself is in no way synonymous with development.
Thus, channeling Socrates, Kenny’s analysis proves intelligent precisely because he acknowledges how little we truly know, instead insisting we focus on using what we do know to keep getting better. Through a detailed and moving view of our recent history, Kenny enables the reader to look at our world, troubled though it may be at times, and see a hope for the future.