Getting Better or Getting Hotter?

The UK’s new Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening, must be on a steep learning curve in deciding how to take forward the UK’s approach to tackling global poverty. Word has it that staff at DFID have put just one book in her welcome pack: Getting Better by Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development. So what impression will it give her of the state of development, and the task ahead?

Judge a book by its cover

First impressions matter – as do headlines, and book titles. And Getting Better is not shy in its message of “why global development is succeeding – and how we can improve the world even more”. To boot, the cover image shows Planet Earth nestled snugly in the middle of a sunflower. Apparently we are blooming.

Don’t get me wrong. The book has an important story to tell. Despite slow-growing or stagnating GDP in many low-income countries, the quality of life – especially health, education, and security – has improved significantly for many millions of people over recent decades. That is important news and good news.

One of the book’s most compelling messages is that, after oodles of theory, policy experiments, and statistical analysis, economists still can’t agree on what makes economies grow, and policymakers everywhere have less control over the growth lever than they would like to admit. The implications according to Kenny?

1. Have Humility. Economic commentators would be wise to hesitate before castigating this or that growth policy, given that success in stimulating growth has turned out to be so very hit and miss.

2. Do No Harm. We know far more about how to improve healthcare and education than we do about raising GDP. So don’t sacrifice reliable investments in clinics and schools in the name of uncertain future economic stimulus.

Oh, how we needed this book in the 1980s and 90s when the self-confidence of the Washington Consensus was rolling out structural adjustment across sub-Saharan Africa, cutting essential social investments for the sake of its elusive economic goals. And we need it now, too, to ensure that health and education remain donor and government priorities for tackling poverty in all its dimensions.

The Chapter That Fell Out

So far, so good. But there is one big fat chapter missing from this book, and it’s the one that should be called How Breaching Planetary Boundaries Threatens to Undermine Decades of Development Success.

Charles Kenny clearly knows that environmental degradation matters, but it jars with the mood, rains on the parade, and spoils the good news story. So he rather sneakily refers to all environmental concerns as ‘neo-Malthusian’ (who wants to be tarred with that brush?) and sums them up in a sentence – something of an understatement – by acknowledging that:

 “There is a considerable policy agenda to speed up the world’s transition to global sustainability if quality of life is to continue getting better.”

Yes. That’s a very big agenda, plus a very big transition. With a rather big ‘if’.

Any book claiming to discuss the state of global development has to recognize the worrying trends as well as the happy ones. Because global development isn’t just the story of what’s happening to the bottom billion. It’s also the story of what’s happening thanks to the richest billion, and the several billions now aiming to live like them.

Critical Earth-system processes – such as climate regulation, the freshwater cycle, and the nitrogen cycle – are under extraordinary stress, and it’s consumption patterns driven by the world’s richest people that are behind it. Check out the diagram of how we are breaching planetary boundaries below. According to Steve Pacala of Princeton University, around half of the world’s CO2 emissions are produced by just 11% of people worldwide. According to the European Nitrogen Assessment, one third of the world’s sustainable ‘budget’ for using nitrogen is currently taken up in fertilizing animal feed to produce meat for the EU alone. This is not a smart or fair way of stewarding the planet’s resources.

Much of the future of global development hangs on whether or not we recognize the importance of natural resources for humanity’s own well-being. Ensuring low-income households have clean water and sanitation is pretty tough when the wells and rivers run dry. Coastal communities lose their main source of protein when the sea and its fish are poisoned with fertilizer run-off. And, as Oxfam’s recent report Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices suggests, ending hunger will be no easy task if sudden droughts and floods keep sending grain prices spiking through the ceiling.

Look at what’s happened to Lake Chad: due to excessive water withdrawals by the four countries that border it, and thanks to climate change, the lake has shrunk to less than 10% of its size forty years ago. “The situation with Lake Chad is desperate,” Oxfam’s Country Director for Niger, Samuel Braimah, told me recently, “We see the desert running closer towards us every day”.

There’s no way round it. High-income countries have to reduce their excessive resource use and decouple it absolutely from their GDP growth. Emerging economies need to get on pathways towards decoupling too. And all countries need to establish shared governance for managing shared resources. Because natural resources are the wealth on which human development ultimately depends – and we are fast running out of time to realize it.

In fact I think we need a book to tell this other story too – and how about this for the cover?

Getting Better 2.0 – The Remix

OK, it’s not only doom and gloom out there. But let’s get real – we’re not exactly in a bed of roses either. After reading his book, I suggested to Charles Kenny that he quickly needs to come out with a revised edition, with that missing chapter on breaching planetary boundaries added in – and he (generously) agreed.

While we’re at it, let’s give the book a more accurate title too, one that tells both sides of the story. How about:

Getting Better But Getting Hotter:

how global development is succeeding –

but is under threat from environmental degradation.

We need to get this revised edition printed quickly and into Justine Greening’s hands (folks at DFID, any chance you could pop a copy of this updated version into the ministerial bag, please?).

Why the rush? Because the storyline defining the state of global development matters, especially when it is informing an influential new policymaker’s perspective. Yes, this makes for a more complex narrative (and a less snappy title) but it will better equip the Secretary of State, and the rest of us too, to figure out a happier ending.

This blog was inspired by a Chatham House Breakfast Discussion with Charles Kenny of his book Getting Better, at which I was the discussant. Many thanks to Rob Bailey and Owen Barder for creating a great debate.

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