Mar 23, 2011 7:58 PM GMT
In context, there is much to be optimistic about.
In the not too distant past — 1980 — one of every six babies born in the West African nation of Liberia died in infancy. Overall life expectancy was a mere 48 years. The great majority of Liberians couldn’t read in 1980. Most girls had never attended school.
Over the last 30 years, infant mortality has fallen sharply, and life expectancy has jumped to 58 years. Most Liberians today can read. More than 80 percent of girls attend school. Politically, the country is much freer than it was in 1980, the year of a deadly coup.
Economically, however, Liberia has been the world’s single worst performer over the last 30 years. Per capita income has fallen an astounding 80 percent, according to official World Bank statistics, which makes the country an extreme example of Africa’s long-running economic troubles. While people may debate the causes of those troubles — corrupt and autocratic governments, feckless foreign aid, postcolonial hangover — everyone seems to agree that Africa is a story of failure.
But is it?
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.”
Money matters, of course. It goes a long way toward determining the quality of people’s lives and their reported happiness. You can argue, as Mr. Kenny does, that the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa stems in part from the contrast between economic stagnation and progress in education and health. People are no longer satisfied with the bare essentials.