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the great quality of life convergence

Development economists spend a lot of time talking about the stagnation in GDP of the bottom billion (cough, cough, Msr. Collier). I never thought much of it until I read the working draft of Charles Kenny’s book “The Success of Development,” which provides mountains of evidence that despite the income stagnation, the quality of life (by virtually every measure) has improved greatly over the past 50, 100 years for the world’s poorest people. In fact, while there’s been a divergence in income, there’s been a convergence in quality of life, and “the forces driving convergence in quality of life appear to be broadly independent of income.”

Furthermore, “far more than income, quality of life appears to follow a pattern of exogenous growth,” relying on global technological progress rather than national policy or institutions. There are tons of great factoids that make Kenny’s larger point, but below I’ve selected some clippings that I believe do a good job capturing the success of development (in a later post I’ll pull what Kenny thinks could be done better/how to continue this success):

The short answer is that the biggest success of development has not been making people richer. The biggest success of development has been in making the things that really matter – things like health and education—cheaper and more widely available. It is the invention and spread of technology and ideas that have–literally—reduced the cost of living. The considerable majority of people worldwide have benefited more in terms of quality of life from technological change and the spread of ideas than they have from income growth. Even people today who remain as poor as their parents, grandparents and ancestors back through time have seen quality of life improvements that would astound their grandparents and, in many cases, would have been beyond the reach of their ancestors however rich they might have been.

For example, probably no country in the World saw much more than ninety percent of children survive their first year of life in 1900. It did not matter how rich the parents, the state of health technology placed a significant upper limit on an infant‘s chance of survival. The United States saw an infant mortality rate of nearly fifteen percent, for example. This was despite an income per capita that was one of the highest in the World at the time -a little above $4,000 measured in today‘s dollars. Today, the country with the highest recorded infant mortality in the World is Sierra Leone. That mortality rate is seventeen percent –only two percent higher than the rate in the US a century earlier. Yet income per person in Sierra Leone has dipped as low as $404 in the recent past – or one tenth the level of the United States a century ago. Countries as poor and wretched as Haiti, Burma and the Congo have infant mortality rates today that are lower than any country in the World achieved in 1900.

Chapter Six suggests the great news which lies behind global convergence in broader measures of development: the best things in life are cheap. Income growth has not been a requirement for improvements in health or education or civil rights over the past years, as demonstrated by a number of countries that have seen per capita income decline while health, education and civil rights observance improved. Chapter Seven argues that the drivers of the better life are technologies and ideas. Very cheap health technologies that can dramatically reduce mortality–technologies including vaccines and antibiotics– have spread rapidly across the world. Ideas that save lives – wash your hands, don‘t defecate in the field—are increasingly accepted.

And life has got better in particular for those who suffered the worst living conditions in 1950. This is evidence of considerable success in development. A child born in the developing world today is far more likely to survive to old age than one born fifty years ago. They are far more likely to be educated as a child (and so literate as an adult) –and this is particularly true of girls. They are more likely to enjoy civil and political freedoms. And the gap between the likely fortunes of a child born in the developing world and one born in the developed world has reduced. In both relative and absolute terms, then, life in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America is much better today than it was in the past.

Similarly, countries with a GDP per capita of $300 in 1999 have a predicted life expectancy of 46 years. This is the same life expectancy as predicted for a country with an income of $3,000 in 1870. Meanwhile, countries with a GDP per capita of $3,000 today have almost exactly the same life expectancy as would have been predicted for a country with a GDP per capita of $30,000 in 1870. In other words, the income associated with a given life expectancy has fallen 90 percent over 130 years.

It is also worth noting how much more egalitarian the distribution of life expectancy has become on this measure– another sign of the convergence we looked at in the last chapter. In 1870, the predicted life expectancy for a person living in a country with an income of $300 per capita was one third that for a person living in a country with an income of $30,000 per capita. By 1999, the person in a country with a $300 income per capita saw a life expectancy more than half as long as a country one hundred times as rich.

[In Haiti], income between 1950 and 2002 fell from $1,051 to $752 per capita, while infant mortality more than halved –dropping from 22% to 7.8% of children under the age of one. Similarly, adult literacy increased from 11 percent to 50 percent, and the country‘s polity score of political rights increased (if in somewhat of a rollercoaster fashion).
A model of development that suggests a strong influence of factors common across countries, that predicts convergence of outcomes, and that sees a comparatively minor role for policy differences across countries in explaining variation in outcomes, is the ‘exogenous growth model‘ discussed in Chapter 3. We saw that it was abandoned by analysts of economic growth as singularly failing to account for changes in GDP per capita across countries over time. But the model fits far better with the facts of global change in other measures of the quality of life. In turn this suggests that the factors which drive the exogenous model –the global diffusion of technology and ideas—might play a large role in quality of life outcomes.

One factor behind both lower infant mortality and longer life expectancy in the developing world may be convergence in calorie intake towards levels required for adequate nutrition. Worldwide, the proportion of the World‘s population living in countries where per capita food supplies were under 2,200 calories per day was 56 percent in the mid 1960s, compared to below 10 percent by the 1990s. One reason for this is that the same amount of nutrition is available at lower incomes than it used to be, in ways that are not fully reflected in purchasing power parity figures. The average America industrial worker in 1889 had nearly twice the income of a rural Indian in 1983. Despite that, a day‘s worth of calories cost ten percent of the American‘s wage compared to five percent of the Indian‘s.
Food prices have declined by approximately one half in the second fifty years of the Twentieth Century alone. The Green Revolution of improved agricultural productivity has played a dramatic role in reducing the cost of life.

Not least, the last century saw an unprecedented change in the nature of human health. Infant mortality declined from ubiquity to a rarity worldwide. This development occurred everywhere. It did not require rapid economic growth to sustain it, suggesting instead that the spread of cheap technologies and approaches were the key–technologies such as immunizations, antibiotics, boiling water, washing hands, and using latrines. And the spread of these technologies has become even more rapid over time. We saw that it took 180 years between the introduction of a smallpox vaccine and the disease‘s global eradication. The World as a whole saw only 1,313 cases of polio in all of 2007 -this only fifty two years after Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine.


Filed under: Economic Policy, General Welfare,

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