Recently three IMF economists published a paper arguing that redistribution is in general pro-growth (Ostry et al. 2014). The paper caused a stir as it dismisses right-wing beliefs that redistribution hurts growth. However, even people sympathetic to the ideas of inclusive growth and equality of opportunity find this finding problematic. One reason is that the authors rely on a measure of redistribution that misrepresents the true cost of redistribution in an economy. Another has to do with the omission of factors that affect positively the income growth of the poor and vulnerable, such as employment. This omission would exaggerate the importance of equality through redistribution as a source of growth and underplay the importance of structural transformation and investments directed towards sectors that use unskilled labor more intensively, and therefore have the potential to generate inclusive growth and productive employment for the poor segments of the population.
One size does not fit all in development policy, as World Bank President, Robert B. Zoellick, emphasized in a recent speech, “Democratizing Development Economics.” The right policies depend on the stage of economic development (amongst other things). What does that mean for the Bank’s overarching objective, a world free of poverty?
|Three construction workers return from a day of work as part of the Rural Roads project to improve access to markets in Rajasthan, India. Photo: Michael Foley|
The Bank’s policy dialogues in poor countries have long emphasized policies to promote economic growth as the main means of fighting income poverty. These include efforts to ensure “pro-poor growth,” such as by avoiding policy biases against labor-intensive production. However, direct redistributive policies in favor of the poor typically get far less attention.
It is not obvious why. Even some very poor countries have high inequality—in fact, some of the highest levels of income inequality in the world are found in poor countries (see the 2006 World Development Report: Equity and Development). And developing countries have redistributive policy options through tax and spending instruments (including cash transfers). There are concerns about trade-offs between equity and efficiency, though it can also be argued that high inequality is an impediment to economic growth. So should direct redistributive interventions play a bigger role?