A hopeful message about the world’s poorest

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 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.

When Kenny and I spoke recently, he made a good case that the world had paid too much attention to economic numbers and ended up with some misleading caricatures as a result: China great, India good, Latin America mediocre, Africa bad.

In fact, life expectancy is longer, and has risen more lately, in Libya and Syria than in China. The average lifespan in Libya – 74 years – is now only four years behind that of the United States.

Among the seven major regions into which the World Bank divides the planet, life expectancy has grown more since 1980 in the Middle East and North Africa than anywhere else (12.2 years). South Asia has had the second biggest gain (9.6 years), Latin America (8.9 years) is third and East Asia fourth (8.1 years). Yemen – the latest political hot spot – has closed almost its entire longevity gap with India since just 1990, for example. Liberia has closed nearly half its gap with India over the same span. The main reason is that health and well-being are cheaper than they used to be. Africa and large parts of Asia and Latin America remain abjectly poor. But they can often still afford antibiotics, immunizations and clean water. So even as African counties have fallen further behind economically, some have begun to catch up in other areas.

One caveat to Kenny’s argument is that progress in Africa has slowed over the last decade or so, largely because of the scourge of HIV. And by any definition, the quality of health and education in sub-Saharan Africa remains horribly low.

Several countries there still have a life expectancy of only about 45 years.

Kenny sees HIV as akin to a modern plague. The fact that sub-Saharan Africa has made even modest progress while battling the plague is remarkable. The most hopeful part of Kenny’s hopeful message is that progress in health, education and human rights may ultimately bring economic progress as well. He is cautious on this point, noting that economists have failed time and time again to come up with consistent explanations for economic growth.

But African growth has accelerated over the last decade, and the acceleration followed improvements in education and other basics. It’s true that Africa’s growth is unimpressive compared with the Asian miracle, but the growth is still the most rapid in Africa’s recorded history. Perhaps those investments in Africa’s people needed time to produce returns.