After so many years of development-bashing, it began to feel like there was just no hope for sorting out the problems in the developing world. Even more depressingly, authors like Dambisa Moyo managed to court global fame, peddling views which were not only highly partisan, but poorly researched and ignored any contrary evidence.
So Charles Kenny's book is certainly a ray of sunshine; an island of hope in the sea of negativity. So of course the temptation is to hold this up and say 'ha! we knew we were right all along. development does work!' The book - which trumps the aforementioned Moyo on almost every level in terms of research, clarity of thought, balanced argument and all the rest, certainly does offer a new perspective on the progress of the poorest in the world. But 'poorest' is perhaps the wrong word to choose, as the central conceit of the book is that the relentless measurement of income as an indicator of quality of life - the 'dollar a day' epidemic - is misleading, because as his research shows, there is almost no link at all between growth in income and improvement of quality of life. In countries where there has been no growth at all, certain indicators like life expectancy have improved by as much as 50%, and conversely in countries where there has been steep economic growth such as China or Botswana, there is often a decrease in life indicators.
Kind of seems illogical doesn't it? One can buy into it fully, and accept that it takes someone with a totally new take and perspective to blow apart orthodoxies, and Charles Kenny is that man. One can put the shutters up, and just say no way, one man can't change the tide of all the other naysayers. But perhaps the middle ground, and which i felt, was that my pleasure at the positive measure was mixed with a slight discomfort that exactly matches how i feel when i read a negative book on development, written econometrically.
The thing is that econometrics doesn't, to me, seem to really capture the subtelties of development, nor the human dimension. It looks at national statistics, often over decades, and from times when collection methods were patchy and unreliable at best. Just because the data show a correlation, does it mean that this is positive evidence? The outcome of Kenny's analysis too, is potentially dramatic. If, as he suggests, we simply don't know how to foster economic development and growth, should we stop trying, and simply allow the hugely complex and context driven forces do their work? He suggests africa's time will come, as have all other regions, but is this enough for the people in africa who are struggling today?
But, like all development books, this should not be read alone. All the different theorists add their ideas into the development mix, and it is up to us to decide which parts we feel are right. There is no one answer, nor will there ever be; those who suggest there is are wrong. But this is an intelligent, well researched book that hopefully will be the start of a trend of analysis that looks beyond cliche, sees the bigger picture and the longer term, and most of all is positive and hopeful. People's lives depend on it.