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Book Review: “Getting Better: Why global development is succeeding and how we can improve the world even more”

July 20, 2011

By Jessica Nabongo

Getting Better: Why global development is succeeding and how we can improve the world even more, a book by Charles Kenny was released in March of this year and endorsed by Bill Easterly. It takes an optimistic approach to viewing the last 50 years of the development industry. Getting Better’s main point is down play the importance of GDP as a measure of development, noting that “improvements in health, education and security are what we want from development, while income is just a tool to help achieve them.”  He highlights the important improvements in health and education indicators that have taken place all over world, across centuries. While Kenny’s arguments were convincing at times, I found myself being quite critical of his optimism, perhaps because I feel that developing countries would be a lot further along if political will was in line with the actual goals that are set for development. Also the book was a review of an introduction to international development class so if you have your Masters in Development it may read as more of a review with very few “Ah ha” moments. So overall I would give the book 3 of 5 stars if there were a rating scale. J I did in depth analysis of some chapters below. I would be keen to hear from someone else who has read the books in the comments section.


 Chapters 2 and 3 lay out the groundwork and bad news for understanding development over the last 50 years. With chapter 3 offering an expedited but thorough history of development economics and the reasons why Africa is in the shape that it is today, ranging from Washington Consensus to AJR’s colonial legacy theory. While this might be new news to someone outside the development arena, it reads as a synopsis of my core development course at LSE, giving the initial feeling that this book was not written for those in the field and very familiar with the academic side of things.

In Chapter 4, “The Good News”, Kenny, oddly, spends an entire chapter discussing Malthusian Trap theory, which to my knowledge has already been discredited time and time again. For me this chapter was a completely misstep, as he was beating a dead horse into oblivion.

Chapter 5, aptly called “The Better News” looks at strides that have been made in recent history in terms of quality of life, education and health indicators. While he manages to point out several areas where countries have advanced, it is not convincing enough for me for the book to have the subtitle, “Why Global Development is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More.” For example, Kenny constantly looks at global indicators, such as “average global life expectancy”, “global literacy rates” and “global primary enrollment rates” and well you get the point. The reason I am skeptical about his looking at everything on a global scale is because when you do a global average, you ignore regional inequality and you also negate the outliers, whether they be positive or negative, but in this case our concern would be with the negative.  I could go on and on about what I feel are weaknesses in his arguments in chapter 5, in fact many of the notes I made in the margins constantly mention bad data. Kenny even gives an anecdote from a friend who worked at WHO.

“A colleague who was once on a World Health Organization expert committee discussing mortality data suggested something about the quality of at least some of the mortality statistics we use: ‘[A]fter a couple of days of discussion, one of our members took the floor and said he didn’t understand why we were spending so much time on the subject. He said he was responsible for reporting on child survival for his country, and each year he simply looked at the estimate of the previous year and adjusted it in the direction he thought reasonable.’ And thus we should be wary of taking any mortality statistics as fully and accurately representing the state of the world.”

p. 89-90

 Need I say more?

Chapter 6, which is arguably the central chapter of the book looks at quality of life improvements, in areas such as health and education, and points out the fact that most of them are completely unrelated to income growth. Much of this is due to the fact the “quality of life is getting cheaper”, largely relating to health, in that “…the life expectancy associated with a given level of income was rising rapidly. (p.100)” There is also a lot of discussion about increases in enrollment rates for primary school, I just hope his next book goes beyond enrollment and touches on quality because that was not done here, at all.  Two quotes I particularly liked:

“The success of development has been to reduce the cost and to spread the reach of the good life.” P. 111

“Not every country needs to become rich if the goal is (only) to achieve some minimum level of quality of life worldwide. And existing resources could be far better utilized if the aim is to maximize improvements in the global quality of life going forward.” P. 111

I struggled to get through the last few chapters because I found them a bit boring and repetitive; however, the concluding paragraph gave a yummy bit of food for thought.

“The only convincing reason why a child born through no choice of his own in a country with borders created by capricious whim is less our responsibility than one born somewhere else is if we believe that the very presence of a country border makes us unable to help.”

p. 199

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