Don’t worry. Be happy. Seriously. No kidding.
Economist Charles kenny explains why we should view the world's future as being half-full
It’s no wonder most people are so pessimistic about the state of the world. Crises like the famine in Somalia, riots across England and political unrest in the Middle East crowd the news. It would be foolish to say that the world is generally a happy place, right?
Charles Kenny, economist and author of “Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and How We Can Help the World Even More” [Basic Books, $26.99], thinks that progress is happening, specifically in quality of life areas such as health, infant mortality rates, school enrollment, and civil and political rights. These leaps and bounds, Kenny argues, are happening in some of the poorest countries with the lowest GDPs. And income has nothing to do with it.
The happy reality of children receiving proper nutrition and health care, and of women enjoying greater freedoms, is one that rarely gets reported. Although terrible injustices, famines and wars continue to occur, just as many people every day experience the wonderful banality that safety and health bring.
What’s the key to even greater progress worldwide? The spread of ideas: Wash your hands, vaccinate your children, educate both sexes. Aid is important, says Kenny, but even more important is the formation of ideas and demands for the high quality of life that every world citizen deserves.
Through social marketing and humanitarian education campaigns, developed nations can help form ideas and foment a demand for the safety, resources and rights that every human—regardless of nationality—deserves.
Why the title “Getting Better”? What’s improving, and how does this challenge what people think?
If you look around the world at just about any indication of quality of life, it is getting better, almost everywhere. Health, education, civil and political rights, and even beer production is on the rise. And they’re improving more in countries that are further behind. Countries with lower life expectancies in the 1960s are seeing better growth than countries that had better health in the ‘60s.
It challenges conventional wisdom, because income has traditionally been used to measure a country’s progress: How many dollars per capita in income do people live on in the average year? And in this regard, at least, the picture isn’t so positive. Most countries in Africa are just as poor today as they were at independence and even, indeed, throughout history. Many countries seem to be mired in absolute poverty. And I don’t mean to downplay that. If you’re living on a dollar or two a day, you don’t have enough money to live well.
But even for those people, the quality of life they can afford on a dollar a day has improved. These countries are seeing better health, education, and civil and political rights. The story is a positive one even for them.
Where do you think pessimism about the state of the world originates and what sustains it?
A lot of people are pessimists by nature. But there’s also a lot of bad news out there. For example, the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which hasn’t been on the news nearly enough, has been an absolute tragedy for the people living there. There’s also the AIDS crisis and the state of the global environment. There are a lot of things to worry about, but the fact is we’ve also seen a lot of progress.
While everyone fixes on the horrible famine happening in Somalia right now, the fact is that the vast majority of Africa has food security. Many more people are living a banal life, and that’s great news.
What’s driving these quality of life improvements?
There’s a supply-side factor and a demand-side factor to things. One side deals with technology and ideas, and the other side involves people changing attitudes and picking up on these ideas.
On the technology/supply side, an obvious example is vaccination. Nobody in this century is going to die of smallpox, and last century hundreds of millions did. We wiped out smallpox due in no small part to vaccination supported by international aid. Mobile phones, television, roads and decent footwear have also spread far into even very remote locations.
There’s also been a really important change in demand. People think differently about what they should expect from government. People worldwide expect that government should provide some basic level of health care and education. They expect to be able to have some say in who their leaders are. That changing idea of what’s normal to expect of government and citizens has had an immense effect on quality of life. Did people think it was a good idea to send your girls to school 50 years ago? No. But today, people do think it’s a good idea to send girls to school, and they also believe that the government should subsidize this education as well.
One particularly interesting phrase in your book is as follows: “Development is not just about giving people what they want; it’s also about getting people to want what they need.” One way to improve things is to get people to accept new ideas.
The vaccine story is a very interesting one. We have many vaccine technologies now, but even in cases where trained specialists show up to a village prepared to vaccinate children for free, a lot of parents don’t vaccinate their kids. And there are a lot of reasons for that. It’s time out of the parent’s day and they might not understand the germ theory. Vaccines also don’t have an immediate effect you can see. What you see in the long run is that your kid doesn’t get as sick as often. Therefore, there’s not a great demand for vaccines in the absence of changing attitudes.
And we’ve found that it’s not that hard to change attitudes. By just offering a small incentive, you can really increase vaccination numbers. For example, you can offer a certain amount of lentils to mothers for every child they vaccinate. And once you’ve created the normalcy of getting your children vaccinated, you can remove the incentive and the demand is still there. The same thing is true of schooling. If you offer parents incentives, such as paying them to send their children to school, the next generation won’t need those same incentives. If the parent went to school, chances are they’ll want to send their kids to school as well. You change the idea of what’s normal.
You mention in your book that rapid school enrollment can create a lower quality of education. How can we assure quality?
Many African countries went overnight from charging for education to making education free, and this created a massive increase in enrollment. In fact, some recent work by a colleague of mine here at the Center for Global Development, Justin Sandefur, explores this issue. He found that it wasn’t exactly the quality of the education that went down. Rather, when communities made education free, schools were flooded with the children of poor people who couldn’t afford to educate their kids before. Wealthier parents then placed their kids in private schools to avoid the influx of students. Test scores went down across the communities because the newer, poorer students weren’t as ready to learn. Another problem involves teachers. They’re forced to teach a curriculum that’s not really suited to the children they’re teaching. Now that almost all children go to primary school at least, the challenge is making sure they receive a quality education while there.
How much of a threat is neo-Malthusianism [the idea that a growing global population will eventually max out our environmental resources]?
Neo-Malthusianism is a significant problem. The actions of the last few years have caused the atmosphere to warm up. We’ve massively increased the amount of oil, copper and aluminum we consume. We’re pumping 380 times as much oil as we were at the start of the 20th century. We’re bound to hit limits to production in areas such as oil. Right now we’re reaching limits to the amounts of carbon dioxide that’s going into the air. We need to respond to those threats to ensure future sustainability and global well-being.
The point I make in the book is that neo-Malthusianism is a rich-world problem. The world’s poorest 650 million people live on an income that’s 1 percent of the world’s richest 650 million people. Even over the past decade of relatively slow growth, we were adding about 1 percent every year to the income of the world’s richest 650 million. This one percent for the richest would have doubled the income of the world’s 650 million poorest. The problem is not one of too many people: It’s of rich people consuming at highly unsustainable rates.
Many economists use GDP to measure a country’s overall economic health. Why do you find this problematic?
The link between GDP growth and almost any measure of quality of life is terribly weak. Countries that see faster GDP-per-capita growth don’t see faster improvements in health, education, or civil and political rights. Indeed, a bit of slow growth can be a powerful motivator for political change.
Again, I would repeat, that people living on less than a dollar or two a day don’t have enough income. They don’t have enough money for adequate nutrition or to avoid the painful choice of deciding whether to send their child to school or into the fields to work. Very poor people need more money. But, globally, and especially in richer countries, the link between income improvements and improvements in quality of life is very weak.
This is good news for people who are worried about global sustainability. You don’t necessarily have to have this big trade-off between quality of life and sustainability. In fact, you could probably back track a bit on economic growth, work on improving the quality of life and move toward a more sustainable environmental future all at the same time.
You say that developed nations have a responsibility to help, partly because they can. What would you say to people who believe that we only should focus on helping our own country? What with the current economic crisis here, why should we care about other countries?
If you were walking by a drowning kid, would you worry about damaging your suit by jumping in to save the kid? Of course you wouldn’t, you would save the kid. You also wouldn’t care about the child’s nationality. It’s clear that if you can dramatically improve the life of another human being with very little cost to yourself, you should do it.
The defense that people usually have to this argument is that we can’t help. They say that African governments are corrupt, the money won’t go anywhere and it won’t make the slightest bit of difference. I think that the evidence is against them. I’m not saying that all aid is hugely effective and every dollar makes a giant difference, but we do know of ways to spend more money that will improve quality of life significantly. Arguing that our marginal dollar is better spent at home just isn’t true. We have a moral obligation to do much more than we currently are to help those much worse off in the world.
You say that the quality of life is on the rise. Are people the world over becoming happier as well?
There’s not too much evidence on global trends in happiness. But I do think that what evidence we have points in that direction. The people answering these polls seem slightly happier. I would also caveat that with things like health, level of education and income, and other factors like that account for about 10 to 15 percent of a person’s answer, while the other 85 percent to 90 percent is due to unknown factors, probably genetics.
Is there anything you’d like to add to the book now in light of recent events or discoveries?
I would have liked to talk more about the global environment, as it’s a serious issue that needs addressing. I would also rewrite the part about income. With the exception of the United States and Europe, most of the world has seen income improvements. I had this storyline in the book that income was an outlier in developing nations, the only factor that wasn’t improving amid other leaps. In fact, developing nations in Africa and Asia have seen great improvements in income.
In the long term, this means great things for the U.S. It means better trading partners, more investment opportunities, more technologies invented to deal with problems we have, better places to go on holiday, more opportunities to get cheaper health care or education abroad.
You also say that having well-off neighbors can lead to more global peace?
It seems that rates of violence, both in country and cross-country, have decreased. This is partly because people value their lives more. If your chances of dying of malaria tomorrow go down, you’re going to think a lot harder about stabbing someone today. I think that cultures are becoming more pacific than they used to be. There’s a lot of long-term evidence of that in Europe. That’s one more piece of good news.
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