Good News: History Does Not Equal Destiny

June 13, 2011

Five years ago, probably the most positive you could be about global development was to argue that, despite a sluggish performance in reducing global income poverty connected to slow-changing institutions, broader quality of life in areas like education and  health had improved everywhere.  That’s pretty much the story I told in Getting Better.  But since then, what we have learned about development progress suggests such a story isn’t nearly positive enough.  Three recent publications add to the growing pile of good news.First off, CGD visiting fellow Andy Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion highlights the declining number of poor countries and poor people worldwide.  He’s not alone: our friends across the road in Brookings, Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz, have made a similar point: we’ve seen historically unprecedented progress in poverty reduction over the past twenty years.   And the progress is truly global –not least, many countries South of the Sahara have had a great decade, as highlighted in Steve Radelet’s Emerging Africa.  The number of low income countries worldwide dropped from 60 to 39 between 2003 and 2009 alone.If income has been growing nearly everywhere, that suggests some fraying in the ‘historically determined institutions as destiny’ story.  Perhaps having a high rate of settler mortality in colonial times, or lacking ocean going ships in 1500, or being on the wrong-shaped continent, for all their impact on relative wealth, doesn’t permanently condemn a country to kleptocratic rule over a subsistence economy.  And despite the evidence for a slow overall rate of institutional change at the macro level, maybe governance can actually get better.That’s where the second publication comes in.  Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s wonderful book Poor Economicscites numerous cases where politicians and bureaucrats, presented with a better way of doing things, took that knowledge on board and changed how things were in fact done.  Theirs isn’t a story of failed states becoming Singapore overnight, but of officials and non-government actors working together to test the use of adjunct teachers in schools, or using bags of lentils to encourage parents to get their kids vaccinated.  Add those cases up, and you get some significant change in global quality of life.The third publication, launched today, helps with the process of adding up.  It looks behind the macro trends in income and quality of life in some star performers.  Mapping Progress: Evidence for a New Development Outlook from the UK Overseas Development Institute summarizes a set of country case studies of development progress across education, health, agriculture, water and sanitation, social protection and income growth.     Cases include:

  • how Cambodia came back from the murder of three quarters of all teachers under the Khmer Rouge to close-to-universal primary education in thirty years,
  • the policy changes behind  life expectancy doubling in Rwanda in sixteen years,
  • Brazil’s reduction of inequality and poverty through a cash transfer program which reaches a quarter of the population
  • Costa Rica’s extension of forest coverage through reforms in forest management and subsidy policies
  • the 500% increase in primary enrollment in Ethiopia between 1994-5 and 2008-9.
  • Uganda’s near-doubling of rural access to improved water sources between 1990 and 2008
  • Eritrea’s expected achievement of all of the health Millennium Development Goals
Mapping Progress suggests the importance of leadership, smart policies and institutional change to the success stories highlighted.  In particular many of the successes were built on a changing role for government, from controlling to facilitating and enabling.  This still takes an active role in overcoming market failures and providing public goods from transport to a stable currency, but it also involves delivering services in collaboration with partners from the private and non-profit sectors, decentralizing provision where possible to ensure responsiveness, and focusing as much on the demand side (removing financial barriers to education, for example) as the supply side.History may be a significant barrier to improvement, then, but widespread advances in health, education, rights and even income growth around the world suggest that it isn’t an insurmountable one.  Mapping Progress –along with Poor Economics and the New Bottom Billion—suggest that poor people and poor countries can and are charting their own course, history be damned.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.