For years, Western journalists and commentators have depicted the continent of Africa as an economic basket case, a caldron of hunger, joblessness, corruption and despair where living standards have barely risen. Certainly the figures on gross domestic product, the standard measure of growth and income, suggest as much. Between 1960 and 1999, per capita GDP in the world’s more developed countries rose from $13,000 to $31,000. During this same period, it went from $477 to just $561—about $1.50 a day—in sub-Saharan Africa.
But does this mean most Africans have seen little improvement in their quality of life? Hardly, argues economist Charles Kenny in his provocative new book, Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding—and How We Can Improve the World Even More. Consider the fact that between 1970 and 1999 the percentage of sub-Saharan Africans who can read and write doubled, from less than one-third of the adult population to two-thirds. Or that in northern Africa, life expectancy rose from forty-eight years in 1962 to sixty-nine in 2002. Across the continent, enrollment in primary education has surged, while infant mortality has fallen. Our image of African stagnation is closely tied to our fixation with GDP, Kenny suggests, producing a highly distorted picture of reality. “The biggest success of development has not been making people richer but, rather…making the things that really matter—things like health and education—cheaper and more widely available,” he contends.
There was a time not long ago when many mainstream economists and policy-makers would have rolled their eyes at such a claim. Far fewer are likely to do so today, thanks to the growing realization that, as economists Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi argue in another recent book, Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up, GDP is a deeply flawed indicator of well-being. Their book is a streamlined version of the final report produced by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, which was created in 2008 by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to identify the limits of GDP and to outline new metrics that take things like education, gender equality and environmental sustainability into account.
More than a few policy-makers have taken note. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron recently directed the Office for National Statistics to conduct a nationwide survey asking citizens what they believe should be used to measure happiness, with the goal of formulating policy “focused not just on the bottom line, but on all those things that make life worthwhile.” In Germany, the Bundestag has established a commission on “Growth, Prosperity, Quality of Life” to develop a more holistic measure of progress. Reforms are under way in Italy, Australia, South Korea, Canada and the United States, where a project called State of the USA, supported by the National Academy of Sciences and numerous prominent foundations, has begun to track some alternative indicators of progress, which will eventually be accessible to citizens online.
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In light of the harsh austerity measures that have been adopted recently in Britain and several other European countries, it’s admittedly hard not to wonder how serious leaders like Cameron are about moving beyond the bottom line. Yet the push to rethink GDP is partly a product of self-interest, born of awareness that policy-makers can seem out of touch by insisting that citizens are faring well simply because the standard metrics say so. “I think the disconnect between our measures of national income—which have been growing for eighteen months—and how people feel about their lives is raising interest in broader measures of society’s well-being,” Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton who recently stepped down as assistant treasury secretary in the Obama administration, tells me.