A Half-Century of Development

CID Faculty Working Paper No. 118

Richard N. Cooper
March 2005


Development as a global policy objective dates from the 1940s. Relative to expectations then, the world economy performed outstandingly well during the second half of the 20th century. Worldwide growth in average per capita income exceeded two percent a year (historically unprecedented), many poor countries became rich, infant mortality declined, diets improved, longevity increased, diseases were contained if not vanquished. Poverty on the World Bank definition of $1 a day (in 1985$) declined dramatically, and the number of persons in poverty was halved despite a more than doubling of the world population. Variations occurred over time and space, with rapid growth being concentrated in Europe and Japan early in the period, then moving to east Asia, southeast Asia, and south Asia. Growth in the 1950s and especially the 1960s exceeded that in later decades. Examples of high growth could be found in every continent, but on average sub-Saharan Africa fared much less well than other regions. Declines in national per capita income were rare, and concentrated in Africa. Civil disorder was a common but not the universal cause of low growth. Median world income gained relative to the well-off, but both spurted ahead of the poorest.

World exports grew more rapidly than output, often leading the way. Many countries gradually shifted their exports from primary products to labor-intensive manufactured goods, and as development proceeded to more sophisticated manufactures and services. The fraction of the labor force devoted to agriculture declined significantly. One country after another achieved social stability, created the right incentives for effort and risk-taking, and engaged constructively with the world economy, which facilitated economic growth. Those that lagged failed to meet one or more of these conditions. Civil and political liberties also spread during this period, although less certainly and less securely. On the whole, it was a good half century for mankind. The substantial poverty and misery that still exists should not lead to neglect or even denial of these achievements.