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Monday, February 14, 2011

Economic Development Around the World

Thanks to Erik B. for this one:

In this TED Talk, Swedish doctor and statistician Hans Rosling presents a fascinating survey of a variety of statistics regarding economic development in the last century and a half. A number of interesting observations emerge: often, what we think of “developing” nations are far ahead of the “wealthy” nations when it comes to health, economic development has almost always come at the expense of the environment, and that a dichotomy between the “industrialized” and “developing” nations is false. He uses a really interesting new piece of statistical software called Dollar Street to show that poverty and development is really more of a continuum: rather than a defined break between sub-Saharan Africa and New York City, there exists a sliding scale, even within a desperately poor region like sub-Saharan Africa.

At the end of the video, he puts forward the thesis that “the seemingly impossible is possible”, in this context with respect to nations pulling themselves out of poverty. He urges people to disabuse themselves of the notion that there are only two types of countries, industrialized and developing, and claims that it is more than possible for Africa to climb out of poverty. He notes that the biggest strides in terms of development in the last 50 years have been made by African cities; in an insight that is perhaps applicable to the debate over No Child Left Behind, he says that when we look at a country, we can’t just look at their condition of the surface; we have to take into account where they’ve come from.

My personal problem with the video came from his suggestion that far and away the most important means of achieving positive development is economic growth. First, this is empirically false. Rosling states that human rights and culture must be the two primary goals of development, and yet the astronomical economic growth of China, for example, came at the cost of both in a devastating way. Second, “economic growth” with respect to developing nations has historically been synonymous with the Structural Adjustment Programs of the International Monetary Fund, which have had disastrous consequences both in Africa and other places like Latin America and the Middle East. Rather, I disagree with him and think that human rights can be a key tool to develop nations. Things like granting universal suffrage are powerful in bringing a nation up to speed with the rest of the world.

Nonetheless, I think this video is very important because it is a step away from the Manichaean view of development that permeates Western academia, and because it shows the amazing power of statistics, with a bunch of really cool graphs and animations. Plus it has an old guy swallowing a sword.

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