New Orleans Anytime there’s an article with a headline that claims there is “hope for the world’s poorest” and the author is someone as sturdy as New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, my fingers are crossed and my eyes are flying. In this case he was touting a new book and argument by a British economist based in the US:
“In a new book called “Getting Better,” Charles Kenny — a British development economist based in Washington — argues that the answer is absolutely not. Life in much of Africa and in most of the impoverished world has improved at an unprecedented clip in recent decades, even if economic growth hasn’t.
“The biggest success of development,” he writes, “has not been making people richer but, rather, has been making the things that really matter — things like health and education — cheaper and more widely available.””
Kenny buttresses his argument by looking country-by-country at the dramatically increased life expectancy and literacy rates throughout Africa and other areas. Indeed this is very good news.
Unfortunately the other side of the coin that cannot be ignored is how frightfully poor the vast majority of these people are and the lack of dramatic progress in these areas.
Leonhardt and Kenny are both hopeful, but as I have often quoted, “hope is not a plan,” and the truth seems to be that the liberal arguments for example that education will translate into both poverty reduction and increased democracy seem based on nothing that might resemble the facts and figures. Leonhardt quotes Kenny directly:
“The most hopeful part of Mr. Kenny’s hopeful message is that progress in health, education and human rights may ultimately bring economic progress as well. He is cautious on this point, noting that economists have failed time and time again to come up with consistent explanations for economic growth.”
It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that it is time (past time?) to more directly address the severe economic plight of the poor in terms of jobs and income, rather than continuing to pretend that hope, prayer, and time alone will do enough. It’s good news that people are living longer and smarter, but it is time for us to get wise about giving people enough resources to really make progress for themselves and their family.