Lessons from the recent history of Central Europe and the Baltics
Economic growth has returned to Central Europe and the Baltics. With the exception of Slovenia, all countries are expected to see positive growth in 2014 - ranging from a tepid 0.8% in Croatia, to more respectable growth rates of 2.2% in Romania and 2.8% in Poland, to highs of 3-4.5% percent in the Baltic Republics. Europe, more broadly, is also turning the corner and is expected to grow at around 1.5%.
Amidst this much welcome growth, however, one question remains: will economic growth be good for the bottom 40 percent and can they expect to see their incomes grow?
Lessons from the recent history of Central Europe and the Baltics
Shanta: Jishnu, your blog post and mine on cash transfers generated a lot of comments. Some people argued that giving poor people cash will not “work” because they will spend it on consumption rather than on their children’s education, which is something we care about. What do you have to say to that?
Jishnu: I don’t think the question “does giving cash to poor people work?” is well-defined. It can only be answered in the negative if we (the donors who give the cash) impose our preferences and judge what poor people spend on relative to those preferences. But if we give poor people cash so they will be better off, then—by definition—they are better off, regardless of how they choose to spend the extra money.
When confronted with financial distress or some other difficulty, over 80 percent of Tanzanian families say they count on relatives and friends for the support needed to get through it. This is to be expected in African culture which is shaped by a strong sense of affinity with family and tribal ties.
However, in a poll conducted by the World Bank and Twaweza by phone in November, almost half of Tanzanian households also expressed that they expect to receive some help from their Government (see details in the fourth Tanzania Economic Update). In a world characterized by rapid urbanization and structural changes, government assistance is increasingly viewed as critical. In cities, especially, traditional ties and safety nets are generally losing their force. With economic progress, income disparities tend to widen. For example, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty (i.e. with barely enough resources to afford a 2,000 calorie diet) is only one percent in Dar es Salaam but over 15 percent in most rural areas.
تتصدى دول التحول العربي التي تضم تونس ومصر واليمن وليبيا حاليا لقضايا معقدة تتعلق بالقيم الفردية، ومدى حرية التعبير، والحقوق الشخصية، والأمور العائلية التي تدور جميعا حول القضايا الجوهرية المتمثلة في الهوية والأدوار التي يلعبها الفرد والدولة والمجتمع. وهذه الحوارات الاجتماعية بناءة من حيث إنها تعكس ثراء الرؤى وتعددها في مجتمعات كانت مسايرة الموجة هي السمة السائدة في كنف النظم الديكتاتورية. لكن للأسف، تؤدي هذه الحوارات إلى الاستقطاب في المجتمع بما يؤدي إلى العنف والتهديد بالفوضى واحتمال العودة إلى الاستبداد. في الحقيقة، يعكس الاستقطاب الاجتماعي الحالي إلى حد بعيد محاولات السياسيين استغلال الانقسامات الاجتماعية، بل وتأجيجها، بطريقة تذكي حماس أنصارهم المحتملين لملء الفراغ السياسي الذي نجم عن رحيل طغاة العصر. وتختلف حالات الحراك التي يشهدها المغرب والأردن والجزائر ولبنان بعض الشيء، إلا أنه في هذه الحالة أيضا يؤدي التركيز المكثف والاستثنائي على الهوية إلى تزاحم التحديات الاجتماعية والاقتصادية بطريقة أكثر أهمية وأكثر سرعة.
The Arab transition countries, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, are grappling with complex issues relating to personal values, the extent of freedom of speech, individual rights, family matters, that all orbit around deep issues of identity and the respective roles of the individual, the state and society. These social conversations are constructive in that they reflect a rich pluralism of views in societies where conformity was the rule under dictatorship. But unfortunately, these dialogues are polarizing society, leading to violence and threatening chaos and a possible return to authoritarianism. In fact, the current social polarization to a large extent reflects attempts by political entrepreneurs to use existing social fault lines, and even exacerbate them, in ways that mobilize passions among possible supporters, driven to over-reach by the political vacuum created by the departure of the historical autocrats. The dynamics in Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, and Lebanon are slightly different, but here too, the intense and exclusive focus on identity is crowding out more important and immediate social and economic challenges.
About a year back the Economist had an editorial piece titled "Out of the basket" and subtitled “Lessons from the achievements – yes, really, achievements – of Bangladesh.” The more in-depth piece that followed appeared somewhat bemused at how a country once labeled a ‘test case for development’ could have made such striking gains in development outcomes over the past two decades (see table 1). These gains were hard to reconcile amidst Bangladesh’s natural and Rana Plaza-type disasters, volatile politics and unfavorable rankings on governance indicators – themes which the Economist has often covered before, and after, this “achievements” piece.
This past week the Lancet has come out with a special issue on Bangladesh which the journal editors say is in order to “investigate one of the great mysteries of global health.” Specifically the published papers are meant to explore how “Bangladesh has made enormous health advances and now has the longest life expectancy, lowest fertility rate and lowest infant and under-5 mortality rates in South Asia despite spending less on health care than several neighbouring countries.” Both these publications help explain the various ‘Bangladesh paradoxes’ but they also overlook, or underplay, a few critical factors.
The issue of social inclusion in Turkey is a controversial one. In this blog, I want to present some data that suggest Turkey experienced inclusive growth over the past decade or so. My colleagues and I have shared this basic story with a number of audiences in Turkey and often the reaction is disbelief. So what does the data say?
The bottom 40 percent can look up
I use three pieces of evidence to make my case. The first is based on recent work by Joao Pedro Azevedo and Aziz Atamanov of the World Bank on shared prosperity. Joao Pedro and Aziz’s work is ongoing and much richer than what I want to present here. So let me just focus on the following chart, which shows the growth of consumption of the bottom 40 percent in Turkey between 2006-2011 and in a number of other countries during roughly the same period. Turkey looks reasonably good albeit not exceptional. The rate of consumption growth of the bottom 40 percent was just over 5 percent, around 0.2 points below the rate of growth for the average. What this means is that during this period of significant global economic turbulence the average welfare of the bottom 40 percent improved by more than one quarter. This was better than India, Indonesia, or Mexico, albeit worse than Brazil, China and Russia.
The Sunday before last I woke up to a couple of articles in the New York Times Magazine and The Economist. In the first article, the New York Times ethicist was asked a question about Halloween candy: Are dentists who purchase candy from kids (thus protecting their teeth) and donate it to poor families engaging in “thoughtless, unethical and unprofessional” behavior? The Economist article summarized research on cash transfers to the poor, concluding that “Giving money to poor people works surprisingly well. But it cannot deal with the deeper causes of poverty”. In both articles, the fundamental question is how we measure and judge improvements in welfare based on what people consume. But while the ethicist takes the question head on, The Economist does not even get the question right.
To see this, recall that in welfare economics there are two rationales for government interventions to make people better off. First, governments fix market failures. If the market does not produce efficient outcomes, the government can use taxes and subsidies to make things better. Externalities are classic examples. I don’t worry that my pollution makes others worse off and therefore “over pollute”. But the government can tax that pollution to the point where I behave “as if” I care about others.
Second, governments redistribute income by giving cash to the poor. If, in society’s judgment, an alternate distribution of consumption is better, government could achieve that distribution by redistributing “endowments” or cash from one party to another.
The Economist this week has an excellent article on giving cash transfers, conditionally or unconditionally, to poor people to alleviate their poverty. Calling it “possibly the single best piece of journalism on cash transfers that I’ve seen so far,” Chris Blattman—one of the scholars whose research has provided grist for this mill—laments that such writing “tends to make the Pulitzer committee fall asleep in bed.” Maybe so, but the idea is potentially transformative.
That cash conditional on sending your children to school or taking them for a medical checkup improves health and education outcomes has been established for some time now. More recently, some studies show that unconditional cash transfers could have the same effect. Chris’s work demonstrates that giving cash to idle young people leads to higher business earnings than if the money were used to run vocational training courses for these people.
In parallel, Todd Moss at the Center for Global Development and my colleague Marcelo Giugale and I (along with several others) have been exploring the idea of transferring oil revenues to citizens as cash transfers, as a way of reducing the resource curse that afflicts many resource-rich countries, especially in Africa. Gabon for instance, with a per-capital income of $10,000 has the second-lowest child immunization rate in Africa. Marcelo and I show that, with just 10 percent of resource revenues’ being transferred directly to citizens (in equal amounts), poverty can largely be eliminated in the smaller resource-rich African countries.