While the world has seen a rapid reduction in extreme poverty in recent decades, the goal of ‘ending poverty’ by 2030 remains ambitious. The latest estimates show that 1 billion people (14.5% of the world’s population) lived below the $1.25 threshold in 2011. Projections until 2030 suggest that even under optimistic growth scenarios, the global poverty target may not be reached. The latest World Bank estimates show that if developing countries were to grow at the (rather unprecedentedly high) rates they achieved during the 2000’s the global poverty headcount could decline from 14.5% in 2011 to 4.9% in 2030 – short of ‘ending poverty’. These projections assume distribution-neutral growth – that every individual’s income within each country grows at the same rate, essentially keeping inequality unchanged. As in the past, overall growth will be an important driver of future poverty reduction, but the inclusiveness of growth will also matter.
Across all recorded history, 99% of humanity has never invented a single thing. Yet, it is a truth universally acknowledged that long-run sustained progress in economic well-being arises from human creativity and innovativeness. In this regard, the average human and indeed the great majority of humanity over the last seven million years provide a completely misleading guide to what is possible.
Misapplied, the Law of Averages misinforms.
In a recent article called “Economic Convergence: The Headwinds Return”, The Economist magazine called the rapid convergence of income levels between developing countries and the United States an aberration. It presented data showing that the difference between income per capita growth in developing countries and in developed countries had peaked around 2008 and had since become steadily smaller. When China is excluded from the calculations, the difference becomes smaller still.
So should we dismiss convergence as a trend whose time is past? I would argue that this would be premature, and that convergence is still a feature of our time. The different conclusion is not because of different data--both of us use the IMF’s World Economic Outlook series for GDP per capita at purchasing power parity terms, and its forecasts until 2019—but a different approach to convergence.
The 2008-2009 global financial crisis led to a number of large–scale government interventions across the world. These included massive provisions of liquidity, the takeover of weak financial institutions, the extension of deposit insurance schemes, purchases by the government of troubled assets, bank recapitalization and, of course, packages of fiscal stimulus, sometimes of a scale not seen since World War II. Even the IMF, the world’s traditional guardian of sound public finance, came out strongly in favor of fiscal loosening, arguing through its managing director that “if there has ever been a time in modern economic history when fiscal policy and a fiscal stimulus should be used, it's now” and that it should take place “everywhere where it's possible. Everywhere where you have some room concerning debt sustainability. Everywhere where inflation is low enough not to risk having some kind of return of inflation, this effort has to be made".
Economic development theorists and practitioners are increasingly using the term “middle-income trap” to describe the situation where developing economies’ convergence to the development frontier comes to a halt once their income per capita reaches a middle-income level. The term is ambiguous: is it a halt in convergence or slowdown in growth, and what exactly is the definition of middle-income? Nevertheless, the concept has been successfully used to create a scare that developing countries are more likely to run out of breath or even give up the race in the middle of the track than to continue catching up with the leading economies. Eichengreen et al. and several IMF economists are among those who provide empirical evidence that the “middle-income trap” is real and that developing countries do get stuck at some low-level equilibrium.
Three quarters of a century since the opening of the first McDonald’s, the fast food chain operates around 34,000 outfits in around 120 countries and territories across all continents. In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), however, – a region of 48 countries and almost a billion people - only South Africa and Mauritius have been able to attract this global food chain.
This peculiarity cannot be explained only by the fact that the region is poor. The company has found a market in about 30 countries with GDP per capita of less than US$ 3,000 (in constant 2005 US$) at the time of their first McDonald’s opening. Hamburgers, Cheeseburgers, and Big Macs are also on offer in a dozen of low-income countries as well. When the first McDonald’s opened in Shenzhen in 1990, China’s GDP per capita was less than US$ 500 per person. Of course, Shenzhen’s per capita income was several times higher, but the company has also found a market in Moldova since 1998 when the GDP per capita of the 3 million person country was less than US$ 600 per capita. There are many cities in SSA today that have higher income, population concentration, and tourists than what Chisinau had in 1998; yet they do not have a McDonald’s. As a matter of fact, 22 SSA countries today have higher income per capita than what Moldova or Pakistan had when the first McDonald’s opened there, and 15 of them have higher income per capita even than what Indonesia or Egypt had at their McDonald’s openings (see chart).
Twenty-five years ago, I lived in a fishing village, Tanji, on the coast of The Gambia. The village came alive before sunrise: if you got up early, you could see the brightly colored "pirogues" pushing out to sea, with six or seven brave young men sailing their precarious wooden dugout canoes. This was no mean feat. The Atlantic was unforgiving and sometimes treacherous.
I worked with the fishermen as part of a European Union fisheries project and, with time, we became friends. We spoke Mandinka, drank atyre, and shared our struggles and hopes. They told me how over the years catches had declined dramatically, forcing them to sail farther and farther out; how the trawlers were creeping closer to the shore, often mangling their fragile nets.
The emergence of local capacity in the construction sector has long been regarded as critical for economic development. Indeed, since the early 1970s, the World Bank has provided a “civil works preference” for low income countries in Bank-financed projects in order to foster the expansion of domestic construction industries. In most regions of the world, the emergence of domestic capacity in civil works goes hand-in-hand with regional development trajectories. Large construction companies bid for, and win, contracts in their own and neighboring countries.
The economics book that has launched a thousand blog posts, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Country, tells a grand story of inequality past and present. One would expect that a book on global inequality would have much to say about development. However, the book has limited relevance for the developing world, and the empirical data he marshals for developing countries is weak.
Piketty’s central story is that convergence in the developed world and slower population growth will leave us with a permanently modest economic growth rate (g). Coupled with a constant return to wealth (r), concentration of capital ownership, and high rates of savings among the wealthy, the low g leads to rising wealth inequality over a longish run—something like the second half of the 20th century.
A low-g future for the developed world is a mostly uncontroversial assumption. (He assumes future GDP per capita growth of 1.2 percent for the U.S.) But Piketty draws conclusions for the world as a whole, and we are a long way from global convergence. As Branko Milanovic noted in his review, catch-up growth could fend off Piketty’s inequality dystopia for some time.
The New ICP Data and the Global Economic Landscape
The new report of the International Comparison Program published last week promises to invigorate debate about the global economic landscape. In some areas, the report challenges conventional wisdom. In other areas, it reinforces the narrative.
The headline change according to The Economist is the rise of China to potentially become the largest economy in the world by the end of 2014. According to Angus Maddison, the United States’ economy became the largest in the world in 1872, and has remained the largest ever since. The new estimates suggest that China’s economy was less than 14% smaller than that of the US in 2011. Given that the Chinese economy is growing more than 5 percentage points faster than the US (7 percent versus 2 percent), it should overtake the US this year. This is considerably earlier than what most analysts had forecast. It will mark the first time in history that the largest economy in the world ranks so poorly in per capita terms. (China stands at a mere 99th place on this ranking.)