Entries tagged with “Charles Kenny”.


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.


Just a very quick thought today.  After reading Charles Kenny’s Getting Better and skimming Owen Barder’s “Can Aid Work?“, I’m wondering if anyone else can hear the faint rumblings of something very important – here we have two people, hardly from the fringes of development thought, noting variously that 1) aid does not seem well-correlated with economic growth, and therefore a clear causal relationship is pretty hard to determine and 2) despite this, and in several cases in the absence of major economic growth, things seem to be getting better in a number of places (this second point is mostly Charles).  In other words, are we seeing arguments against a focus on economic growth in development shift from the margins to the center of development thinking?

Those of us more on the qualitative social theory fringes of the field have long been arguing that the worship of growth did not make much sense, given what we were seeing on the ground.  Further, the emergence of the anthropocene (the recent era of human dominated environmental events) as a direct outcome of more than a century of concerted efforts to spur ever-faster economic growth, calls into question the wisdom of a continued myopic focus on growth without a serious consideration of its costs and potential material limits.  So if indeed we are seeing the beginnings of a shift in policy circles,  I am thrilled.  Nothing will change tomorrow, but I think these interventions might be important touchstones for future efforts to create some sort of development economics of finitude . . .



Andy Sumner and Charles Kenny (disclosure – Andy and Charles are friends of mine, and I need to write up my review of Charles’ book Getting Better . . . in a nutshell, you should buy it) have a post on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters Blog addressing the two most recent challenges to the idea of the “poverty trap”: Ghana and Zambia’s recent elevations to middle-income status (per capita GNIs of between $1,006 and $3,975) by the World Bank.

Quick background for those less versed in development terminology: GNI (Gross National Income) is the value of all goods and services produced in a country, as well as all overseas investments and remittances (money sent home from abroad).  Per capita GNI divides this huge number by the population to get a sense of the per-person income of the country (there is a loose assumption that the value of goods and services will be paid in the form of wages).  So, loosely speaking, a per capita GNI of $1006 is roughly equivalent to $2.75/day.  Obviously $2.75 buys a lot more in rural Africa than it does basically anywhere inside the US, but this is still a pretty low bar at which to start “Middle Income.”

I do not want to engage an argument about where Middle Income should start in this post – Andy and Charles take this up near the end of their post, and nicely lay out the issues.  The important point that they are making, though, is that the idea that there are a lot of countries out there mired in situations that make an escape from food insecurity, material deprivation, absence of basic healthcare, and lack of opportunity (situations often called “poverty traps”) is being challenged by the ever-expanding pool of countries that seem to be increasing economic productivity rapidly and significantly.  The whole point of a “poverty trap”, as popularized by Paul Collier’s book on The Bottom Billion and Jeffrey Sach’s various writings, is that it cannot be escaped without substantial outside aid interventions (a la Sachs) or may not be escapable at all.  Well, Ghana certainly has received a lot of aid, but its massive growth is not the product of a new “big push”, a massive infusion of aid across sectors to get the country up into this new income category.  Turns out the poorest people in the world might not need us to come riding to their rescue, at least not in the manner that Sachs envisions in his Millennium Villages Project.

That said, I’ve told Andy that I am deeply concerned about fragility – that is, I am thrilled to see things changing in places like Ghana, but how robust are those changes?  At least in Ghana, a lot of the shift has been driven by the service sector, as opposed to recent oil finds (though these will undoubtedly swell the GNI figure in years to come) – this suggests a broader base to change in Ghana than, say, Equatorial Guinea . . . where GNI growth is all about oil, which is controlled by the country’s . . . problematic . . . leader (just read the Wikipedia post).  But even in Ghana, things like climate change could present significant future challenges.  The loss of the minor rainy season, for example, could have huge impacts on staple crop production and food security in the country, which in turn could hurt the workforce, exacerbate class/ethnic/rural-urban tensions, and generally hurt social cohesion in what is today a rather robust democracy.  Yes, things have gotten better in Ghana . . . but this is no time to assume, a la Rostow, that a largely irreversible takeoff to economic growth has occurred.  Aid and development are important and still needed in an increasingly middle-income world, but a different aid and development that supports existing indigenous efforts and consolidates development gains.

 

It appears that the World Bank, at long last, is going to really make a huge portion of its data publicly available.  The New York Times has a story that outlines some of the trials and tribulations that brought us to this point, some of which will probably seem arcane to the development outsider.  However, as a development researcher/practitioner hybrid, I cannot tell you how exciting or important this is – the Bank is sitting on a giant pile of interesting data.  Not all of it is going to be high quality (a lot of data from the Global South is not – see chapter 9 of Delivering Development or a parallel discussion in Charles Kenny’s Getting Better).  But until very recently the data you could easily access from the Bank was worthy of a lower-division undergraduate project – and getting to the really interesting stuff was brutally difficult.  The new datasets are more detailed and comprehensive, but still not everything the Bank has.  Andy Sumner has been trying to get at the Bank’s core data to refine and test his ideas about the New Bottom Billion (which you should all be reading, by the way), with little success because of security requirements.

I really like a quote, at the end of the NY Times piece, from Bitange Ndemo, Kenya’s permanent secretary for information.  When asked if there would be resistance to public dissemination of government data, he argued that transparency was inevitable because:

Information is valuable, he says, and people will find a way to get it: “This is one of those things, like mobile phones and the Internet, that you cannot control.”