We work with data, so we see the evidence: more people have phones, more houses have permanent roofs, more homes have refrigerators, and so on. Yet, the everyday conversations harp on the failures. We too talk about them, because we must, but we do so in the form of “what could have been better” rather than failure.
Charles Kenny, an economist whose work we have been following for some time, has written a new book called Getting Better, dealing with this problem. Here is an excerpt from the review:
Among the seven major regions into which the World Bank divides the planet, life expectancy has grown more since 1980 in the Middle East and North Africa than anywhere else (12.2 years). South Asia has had the second biggest gain (9.6 years), Latin America (8.9 years) is third and East Asia fourth (8.1 years). Yemen — the latest political hot spot — has closed almost its entire longevity gap with India since just 1990, for example. Liberia has closed nearly half its gap with India over the same span.
The main reason is that health and well-being are cheaper than they used to be. Africa and large parts of Asia and Latin America remain abjectly poor. But they can often still afford antibiotics, immunizations and clean water. So even as African countries have fallen further behind economically, some have begun to catch up in other areas.
Just as important, their citizens, who are better educated than their ancestors and have far better access to information, often have the political power to demand better basic services. Compared with past decades, vastly more people today live under a political system that at least resembles democracy. It was only 40 years ago that women in Switzerland — Switzerland! — could not vote.
Of course, that still leaves the puzzle of what causes the good outcome. Bangladesh has achieved good outcomes in telecom. The cause is a business model, we have concluded. All that government has done is removed barrier to participation by the private sector, even if imperfectly. Is there such a causal mechanism outlined in Kenny’s book? One would have to read it to find out.