Growth. Huh. What is it good for? Absolute poverty

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Mphatso Gumulira, 15, with her son Zayitwa in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Blantyre, Malawi. If it continues, Malawi's current economic growth rate of around 6% may improve Zayitwa's prospects. Yet, Malawi's GNI per capita increased very slowly between 1980 and 2012, but life expectancy increased by over 10 years and expected years of schooling has more than doubled in the same period. Photo: DFID.

Kenya and Ireland are leading current discussions on sustainable development targets for the next 15 years. One of the proposed targets is to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth. Whether that and the other goals will be met will depend to a significant extent on the pace and nature of economic growth in India and sub-Saharan Africa.

Probably every Western country has one or two newspapers that depict it as besieged by immigrants, crime and/or antisocial youths. What is strange about foreign news is that the overwhelming majority of national media proudly convey an image of the world going to hell in a handbasket. The truth is far more positive – so far.

One simple statistic which captures what has happened to human well-being between 1980 and 2013, is that average global life expectancy went from 59 to 71. That progress is extraordinary and has no parallel in human history. Life expectancy at birth in China is now 75. India’s life expectancy is 66 – the same as China’s in 1980 – up from 55 in 1980.

In the same period, the global economy has more than trebled. So, does growth explain the improvement in life expectancy? According to UNDP data, Chinese GNI per capita increased by over 1400% between 1980 and 2012. India’s GNI per capita increased by a more modest 273% in the same period. However, India’s improvement in life expectancy was comparable to China’s (it increased by much more but started from a lower base). The rest of the global economy grew a bit more slowly than India, but achieved a similar jump in life expectancy.

The most direct cause of rising life expectancy has been the dramatic reduction in child mortality in recent decades. Success in reducing child mortality has been uneven, however. There has been slower progress in reducing death associated with childbirth, even though millions of lives could be saved at low-cost. According to the WHO:

‘Every year nearly 41% of all under-five child deaths are among newborn infants, babies in their first 28 days of life or the neonatal period. Three quarters of all newborn deaths occur in the first week of life… Almost 3 million of all the babies who die each year can be saved with low-tech, low-cost care.’