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Book Review: The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality

Posted By Guy Pfeffermann, Monday, November 18, 2013
Guy Pfeffermann

Guy recently wrote a review on "The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality"

This is an important book by one of the foremost development economists in the world. It is highly readable, indeed written in an entertaining manner. Deaton paints on a vast canvas in time and space, embracing both developed and developing worlds. His theme is how in the course of history, and especially during the past three decades, hundreds of millions of people managed to escape abject poverty. He brings new insights into the sequencing and the many interwoven and often counter-intuitive linkages between growth and quality of life, especially health and longevity. His story begins when we were all hunters/gatherers and ends in 2013 in the unresolved aftermath of the financial crisis.

One of Deaton's main themes is that economic growth does not necessarily produce improved quality of life, especially when income is distributed very unequally - as is the case in today's United States. So for example, in spite of lower economic growth in France than in the United States, because of a less unequal distribution of income, "all but the top 1 percent of the French population did better than all but the top 1 percent of the American population". (p. 260)

In discussing the relationships between rich and poor countries, I very much like Deaton's implicit framework, which distinguishes "us" (the people of the North), "we" (the Northern governments), aid recipients ("their governments"), and "they" (the people of the South). This helps to cut through a lot of semantic and conceptual confusion, especially when discussing "development assistance".The book concludes with a chapter about how to help those left behind the "Great Escape" from poverty. While I tend to agree with his main thrust: that foreign aid works best where it is least needed, i.e., where governance is reasonably good, and works worst in poorly-governed countries where the people are most miserable. But from all I have seen, the evidence on aid effectiveness is inconclusive, largely, as Deaton notes, because the data are so bad. Deaton is very critical of aid, but illustrates his argument with selected examples, when one can almost always find counter-examples. However, one can only agree with his observation that increased flows of money don't help - quite the opposite - when recipient countries lack basic capacities and/or are poorly governed.

Although he doesn't say it quite this way, Deaton implies throughout much of the book that while is quite easy for development experts to come up with lists of conditions that are necessary for successful development - including for example respect for the Rule of Law and sound macroeconomic policies - nobody has yet come up with a list of sufficient conditions.

>> Click here for the posted review and to view others


Guy Pfeffermann is the Founder & CEO of the Global Business School Network.

Tags:  economic development  social development 

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