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Principles of Economics 3e

32.2 Improving Countries’ Standards of Living

Principles of Economics 3e32.2 Improving Countries’ Standards of Living

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Analyze the growth policies of low-income countries seeking to improve standards of living
  • Analyze the growth policies of middle-income countries, particularly the East Asian Tigers with their focus on technology and market-oriented incentives
  • Analyze the struggles facing economically-challenged countries wishing to enact growth policies
  • Evaluate the success of sending aid to low-income countries

Jobs are created in economies that grow. What is the origin of economic growth? According to most economists who believe in the growth consensus, economic growth (as we discussed in Economic Growth) is built on a foundation of productivity improvements. In turn, productivity increases are the result of greater human and physical capital and technology, all interacting in a market-driven economy. In the pursuit of economic growth, however, some countries and regions start from different levels, as the differences in per capita GDP presented earlier in Table 32.2 illustrate.

Growth Policies for the High-Income Countries

For the high-income countries, the challenge of economic growth is to push continually for a more educated workforce that can create, invest in, and apply new technologies. In effect, the goal of their growth-oriented public policy is to shift their aggregate supply curves to the right (refer to The Aggregate Demand/Aggregate Supply Model). The main public policies targeted at achieving this goal are fiscal policies focused on investment, including investment in human capital, in technology, and in physical plant and equipment. These countries also recognize that economic growth works best in a stable and market-oriented economic climate. For this reason, they use monetary policy to keep inflation low and stable, and to minimize the risk of exchange rate fluctuations, while also encouraging domestic and international competition.

However, early in the second decade of the 2000s, many high-income countries found themselves more focused on the short term than on the long term. The United States, Western Europe, and Japan all experienced a combination of financial crisis and deep recession, and the after-effects of the recession—like high unemployment rates—seemed likely to linger for several years. Most of these governments took aggressive, and in some cases controversial, steps to jump-start their economies by running very large budget deficits as part of expansionary fiscal policy. These countries must adopt a course that combines lower government spending and higher taxes.

Similarly, many central banks ran highly expansionary monetary policies, with both near-zero interest rates and unconventional loans and investments. For example, in 2012, Shinzo Abe (see Figure 32.4), then newly-elected Prime Minister of Japan, unveiled a plan to pull his country out of its two-decade-long slump in economic growth. It included both fiscal stimulus and an increase in the money supply. The plan was successful in some ways and unsuccessful in others. While real GDP growth in Japan has averaged around 1% since 2012 (and was only 0.2% in 2014 and 0.7% in 2016) and while the inflation rate has struggled to stay positive in recent years, the unemployment rate continued to decline through the 2010s. By early 2020, prior to the pandemic, the unemployment rate stood at just 2.5%. Public debt has also reached a plateau in the last 5–7 years of about 230–240% of GDP, although this number did increase slightly in 2020 due to the pandemic. Shinzo Abe stepped down as Prime Minister of Japan in 2020, and was assassinated in 2022.

This is a photo of Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.
Figure 32.4 Japan’s Former Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe Japan used fiscal and monetary policies to stimulate its economy, which has helped bring down unemployment, but inflation remains stubbornly low. (Credit: modification of “Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan” by Chatham House/Flickr Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0)

As we discussed in other chapters, macroeconomics needs to have both a short-run and a long-run focus. The challenge for many of the developed countries in the next few years will be to grapple with the consequences of the pandemic. With high unemployment and no end of the virus containment in sight, it will be challenging for these governments to refocus their efforts on new technology, education, and physical capital investment.

Growth Policies for the Middle-Income Economies

The world’s great economic success stories in the last few decades began in the 1970s with that group of nations sometimes known as the East Asian Tigers: South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. The list sometimes includes Hong Kong and Taiwan, although often under international law they are treated as part of China, rather than as separate countries. The economic growth of the Tigers has been phenomenal, typically averaging 5.5% real per capita growth for several decades. In the 1980s, other countries began to show signs of convergence. China began growing rapidly, often at annual rates of 8% to 10% per year. India began growing rapidly, first at rates of about 5% per year in the 1990s, but then higher still in the first decade of the 2000s.

We know the underlying causes of these rapid growth rates:

  • China and the East Asian Tigers, in particular, have been among the highest savers in the world, often saving one-third or more of GDP as compared to the roughly one-fifth of GDP, which would be a more typical saving rate in Latin America and Africa. These countries harnessed higher savings for domestic investment to build physical capital.
  • These countries had policies that supported heavy investments in human capital, first building up primary-level education and then expanding secondary-level education. Many focused on encouraging math and science education, which is useful in engineering and business.
  • Governments made a concerted effort to seek out applicable technology, by sending students and government commissions abroad to look at the most efficient industrial operations elsewhere. They also created policies to support innovative companies that wished to build production facilities to take advantage of the abundant and inexpensive human capital.
  • China and India in particular also allowed far greater freedom for market forces, both within their own domestic economies and also in encouraging their firms to participate in world markets.

This combination of technology, human capital, and physical capital, combined with the incentives of a market-oriented economic context, proved an extremely powerful stimulant to growth. Challenges that these middle-income countries faced are a legacy of government economic controls that for political reasons can be dismantled only slowly over time. In many of them, the government heavily regulates the banking and financial sector. Governments have also sometimes selected certain industries to receive low-interest loans or government subsidies. These economies have found that an increased dose of market-oriented incentives for firms and workers has been a critical ingredient in the recipe for faster growth. To learn more about measuring economic growth, read the following Clear It Up feature.

Clear It Up

What is the rule of 72?

It is worth pausing a moment to marvel at the East Asian Tigers' growth rates. If per capita GDP grows at, say, 6% per year, then you can apply the formula for compound growth rates—that is (1 + 0.06)30—meaning a nation’s level of per capita GDP will rise by a multiple of almost six over 30 years. Another strategy is to apply the rule of 72. The rule of 72 is an approximation to figure out doubling time. We divide the rule number, 72, by the annual growth rate to obtain the approximate number of years it will take for income to double. If we have a 6% growth rate, it will take 72/6, or 12 years, for incomes to double. Using this rule here suggests that a Tiger that grows at 6% will double its GDP every 12 years. In contrast, a technological leader, chugging along with per capita growth rates of about 2% per year, would double its income in 36 years.

Growth Policies for Economically-Challenged Countries

Many economically-challenged or low-income countries are geographically located in Sub-Saharan Africa. Other pockets of low income are in the former Soviet Bloc, and in parts of Central America and the Caribbean.

There are macroeconomic policies and prescriptions that might alleviate the extreme poverty and low standard of living. However, many of these countries lack the economic and legal stability, along with market-oriented institutions, needed to provide a fertile climate for domestic economic growth and to attract foreign investment. Thus, macroeconomic policies for low income economies are vastly different from those of the high income economies. The World Bank has made it a priority to combat poverty and raise overall income levels through 2030. One of the key obstacles to achieving this is the political instability that seems to be a common feature of low-income countries.

Figure 32.5 shows the ten lowest income countries as ranked by The World Bank in 2020. These countries share some common traits, the most significant of which is the recent failures of their governments to provide a legal framework for economic growth. Civil and ethnic wars have impacted Burundi. Command economies, corruption, as well as political factionalism and infighting are commonly adopted elements in these low-income countries. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (often referred to as “Congo”) is a resource-wealthy country that has not been able to increase its subsistence standard of living due to the political environment.

This graph illustrates at bar chart of the per capita income in 2020 U.S. dollars of 10 countries: Burundi, Somalia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger, and Sudan. The y-axis measures per capita income in 2020 U.S. dollars, from 0 dollars to 700 dollars, in increments of 100 dollars. The x-axis shows each country, from lowest to highest, beginning with Burundi at around 250 dollars, then Somalia at 300 dollars, followed by Mozambique at 450 dollars, Madagascar at 475 dollars, and Central African Republic at 490 dollars. Next is Sierra Leone at 500 dollars, Afghanistan at 510 dollars, and Democratic Republic of the Congo at 525 dollars. Niger is next at 550 dollars, and the highest is Sudan at 600 dollars.
Figure 32.5 The Ten Lowest Income Countries This bar chart that shows the ten lowest-income countries by per capita income. They are, from lowest income to highest: Burundi, Somalia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, and Sudan. (Source:

Low-income countries are at a disadvantage because any incomes that people receive are spent immediately on necessities such as food. People in these countries live on less than $1,035 per year, which is less than $100 per month. Lack of saving means a lack of capital accumulation and a lack of loanable funds for investment in physical and human capital. Recent research by two MIT economists, Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo, has confirmed that the households in these economies are trapped in low incomes because they cannot muster enough investment to push themselves out of poverty.

For example, the average citizen of Burundi, a low-income country, subsists on $239 per year (adjusted to 2020 dollars). According to Central Intelligence Agency data in its CIA Factbook, as of 2021, 85% of Burundi’s population is agrarian, with bananas as the main income producing crop. Only one in two children attends school and, as Figure 32.6 shows, many are not in schools comparable to what occurs in developed countries. Political instability has made it difficult for Burundi to make significant headway toward growth, as verified by the electrification of only 11% of households and 40% of its national income coming from foreign aid.

This is an image of children sitting in a ruined structure which serves as their outdoor “classroom.”
Figure 32.6 Lack of Funds for Investing in Human Capital In low-income countries, people often spend all income on necessities for living and cannot accumulate or invest in physical or human capital. The students in this photograph learn in an outside “classroom” void of not only technology, but even chairs and desks. (Credit: “Living in Kuito” by Rafaela Printes/Flickr Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0)

Link It Up

The World Factbook website is loaded with maps, flags, and other information about countries across the globe.

Other low-income countries share similar stories. These countries have found it difficult to generate investments for themselves or to find foreign investors willing to put up the money for more than the basic needs. Foreign aid and external investment comprise significant portions of the income in these economies, but are not sufficient to allow for the capital accumulation necessary to invest in physical and human capital. However, is foreign aid always a contributor to economic growth?

Development economics is a branch of economics that often focuses on answering that question and others like it. Development economists analyze the forces and outcomes of economics in developing nations. The field is typically focused on—and sometimes defined as—understanding and implementing policies and practices to improve economic and social wellbeing in low- and middle-income nations or regions. But it is an extremely wide and varied area of study, often blending politics, fiscal policy, education, innovation, health and medicine, international trade, natural resources, and military/geopolitical considerations.

Many development economists have focused on understanding the best mix of approaches to foster equitable and sustainable growth. Like other economists, they may analyze practices or outcomes from the past and apply that knowledge to the present and future. And many prominent development economists challenge traditional ways of thinking. Dambisa Moyo, for example, provides evidence indicating that foreign aid is rarely a positive solution and often does more harm than good. In her book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is Another Way for Africa (2009), she lays out the failure of past aid, indicating that it typically ends up in the pockets of corrupt officials and has the adverse effect of minimizing other types of investment. At the time, Moyo proposed a complete stoppage of foreign aid into Africa. Moyo sees far greater promise in increases in trade and direct private investment, as well as other financing options such as bonds.

Clear It Up

Does foreign aid to low-income countries work?

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), about $134 billion per year in foreign aid flows from the high-income countries of the world to the low-income ones. Relative to the size of their populations or economies, this is not a large amount for either donors or recipients. For low-income countries, aid averages about 1.3 percent of their GDP. However, even this relatively small amount has been highly controversial.

Supporters of additional foreign aid point to the extraordinary human suffering in the world's low-and middle-income countries. They see opportunities all across Africa, Asia, and Latin America to set up health clinics and schools. They want to help with the task of building economic infrastructure: clean water, plumbing, electricity, and roads. Supporters of this aid include formal state-sponsored institutions like the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) or independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like CARE International that also receive donor government funds. For example, because of an outbreak of meningitis in Ethiopia in 2010, DFID channeled significant funds to the Ethiopian Ministry of Health to train rural health care workers and also for vaccines. These monies helped the Ministry offset shortfalls in their budget.

Opponents of increased aid do not quarrel with the goal of reducing human suffering, but they suggest that foreign aid has often proved a poor tool for advancing that goal. For example, according to an article in the Attaché Journal of International Affairs, the Canadian foreign aid organization (CIDA) provided $100 million to Tanzania to grow wheat. The project did produce wheat, but nomadic pastoralists and other villagers who had lived on the land were driven off 100,000 acres of land to make way for the project. The damage in terms of human rights and lost livelihoods was significant. Villagers were beaten and killed because some refused to leave the land. At times, the unintended collateral damage from foreign aid can be significant.

William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University, argues that countries often receive aid for political reasons and the aid does more harm than good. If a country's government creates a reasonably stable and market-oriented macroeconomic climate, then foreign investors will be likely to provide funds for many profitable activities. For example, Facebook partnered with multiple organizations in a project called to provide access in remote and low-income areas of the world, and Google began its own initiative called Project Loon in 2011, although it was phased out in 2021. Facebook’s first forays into providing internet access via mobile phones began in stable, market-oriented countries like India, Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, and the Philippines and continues its work in Africa by working with telecommunications corporations in China to develop an undersea cable network.

Policymakers are now wiser about foreign aid limitations than they were a few decades ago. In targeted and specific cases, especially if foreign aid is channeled to long-term investment projects, foreign aid can have a modest role to play in reducing the extreme levels of deprivation that hundreds of millions of people around the world experience.

Link It Up

Watch this video on the complexities of providing economic aid in Africa.

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