Charles Kenny’s* book Getting Better has received quite a bit of attention in recent months, at least in part because Bill Gates decided to review it in the Wall Street Journal (up until that point, I thought I had a chance of outranking Charles on Amazon, but Gates’ positive review buried that hope).  The reviews that I have seen (for example here, here and here) cast the book as a counterweight to the literature of failure that surrounds development, and indeed Getting Better is just that.  It’s hard to write an optimistic book about a project as difficult as development without coming off as glib, especially when it is all too easy to write another treatise that critiques development in a less than constructive way.  It’s a challenge akin to that facing the popular musician – it’s really, really hard to convey joy in a way that moves the listener (I’m convinced this ability is the basis of Bjork’s career), but fairly easy to go hide in the basement for a few weeks, pick up a nice pallor, tune everything a step down, put on a t-shirt one size too small and whine about the girlfriend/boyfriend that left you.

Much of the critical literature on development raises important challenges to development practice and thought, but does so in a manner that makes addressing those challenges very difficult (if not intentionally impossible).  For example, deep (and important) criticisms of development anchored in poststructural understandings of discourse, meaning and power (for example, Escobar’s Encountering Development and Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine) emerged in the early and mid-1990s, but their critical power was not tied in any way to a next step . . . which eventually undermined the critical project.  It also served to isolate academic development studies from the world of development practice in many ways, as even those working in development who were open to these criticisms could find no way forward from them.  Tearing something down is a lot easier than building something new from the rubble.

While Getting Better does not reconstruct development, its realistically grounded optimism provides what I see as a potential foundation for a productive rethinking of efforts to help the global poor.  Kenny chooses to begin from a realistic grounding, where Chapters 2 and 3 of the book present us with the bad news (global incomes are diverging) and the worse news (nobody is really sure how to raise growth rates).  But, Kenny answers these challenges in three chapters that illustrate ways in which things have been improving over the past several decades, from sticking a fork in the often-overused idea of poverty traps to the recognition that quality of life measures appear to be converging globally.  This is more than a counterweight to the literature of failure – this book is a counterweight to the literature of development that all-too-blindly worships growth as its engine.  In this book, Kenny clearly argues that growth-centric approaches to development don’t seem to be having the intended results, and growth itself is extraordinarily difficult to stimulate . . . and despite these facts, things are improving in many, many places around the world.   This opens the door to question the directionality of causality in the development and growth relationship: is growth the cause of development, or its effect?

Here, I am pushing Kenny’s argument beyond its overtly stated purpose in the book. Kenny doesn’t overtly take on a core issue at the heart of development-as-growth: can we really guarantee 3% growth per year for everyone forever?  But at the same time, he illustrates that development is occurring in contexts where there is little or no growth, suggesting that we can delink the goal of development from the impossibility of endless growth.  If ever there were a reason to be an optimist about the potential for development, this delinking is it.

I feel a great kinship with this book, in its realistic optimism.  I also like the lurking sense of development as a catalyst for change, as opposed to a tool or process by which we obtain predictable results from known interventions.  I did find Getting Better’s explanations for social change to rest a bit too heavily on a simplistic diffusion of ideas, a rather exogenous explanation of change that was largely abandoned by anthropology and geography back in the structure-functionalism of the 1940s and 50s.  The book does not really dig into “the social” in general.  For example, Kenny’s discussion of randomized control trials for development (RCT4D), like the RCT4D literature itself, is preoccupied with “what works” without really diving into an exploration of why the things that worked played out so well.  To be fair to Kenny, his discussion was not focused on explanation, but on illustrating that some things that we do in development do indeed make things better in some measurable way.  I also know that he understands that “what works” is context specific . . . as indeed is the very definition of “works.”  However, why these things work and how people define success is critical to understanding if they are just anecdotes of success in a sea of failure, or replicable findings that can help us to better address the needs of the global poor.  In short, without an exploration of social process, it is not clear from these examples and this discussion that things are really getting better.

An analogy to illustrate my point – while we have very good data on rainfall over the past several decades in many parts of West Africa that illustrate a clear downward trend in overall precipitation, and some worrying shifts in the rainy seasons (at least in Ghana), we do not yet have a strong handle on the particular climate dynamics that are producing these trends.  As a result, we cannot say for certain that the trend of the past few decades will continue into the future – because we do not understand the underlying mechanics, all we can do is say that it seems likely, given the past few decades, that this trend will continue into the future.  This problem suggests a need to dig into such areas as atmospheric physics, ocean circulation, and land cover change to try to identify the underlying drivers of these observed changes to better understand the future pathways of this trend.  In Getting Better (and indeed in the larger RCT4D literature), we have a lot of trends (things that work), but little by way of underlying causes that might help us to understand why these things worked, whether they will work elsewhere, or if they will work in the same places in the future.

In the end, I think Getting Better is an important counterweight to both the literature of failure and a narrowly framed idea of development-as-growth.  My minor grumbles amount to a wish that this counterweight was heavier.  It is most certainly worth reading, and it is my hope that its readers will take the book as a hopeful launching point for further explorations of how we might actually achieve an end to global poverty.


*Full disclosure: I know Charles, and have had coffee with him in his office discussing his book and mine.  If you think that somehow that has swayed my reading of Getting Better, well, factor that into your interpretation of my review.