Generations of news media have branded the academic discipline of economics "the dismal science" for its gloomy forecasts.

But Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, calls himself "an optimistic economist" and has reported compelling evidence that the global economic glass is at least half-full. His contrarian 2011 book, Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding—And How We Can Improve the World Even More (Basic Books), takes an evidence-based approach to the study of global poverty.

Each year, billions of dollars in aid are spent to achieve the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. Three of the eight goals directly connect to the welfare of children: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, and reducing child-mortality rates by two-thirds.

UN member states adopted the goals in 2000 and set a deadline of 2015, now 18 months away. Kenny said that while not all those goals will be achieved by then, the progress has been significant. He recently spoke with Christianity Today senior editor of global journalism Timothy C. Morgan about his findings.

Your book describes a historic decline in global poverty. But hasn't the worldwide economic recession bumped poverty rates back up?

If I were writing the book today, I would be more positive. What has become clear is that the African continent, sub-Saharan Africa in particular, is having one of its best decades ever. Some of the fastest-growing countries in the world have been in Africa, and these countries over the past decade have doubled their gross domestic product. It's really an impressive performance.

We have seen quite dramatic poverty reduction as a result. If you look at Africa in the 1990s, the proportion of Africans living on $1.25 a day went up. But since 2000, it's been tumbling back down the other way. There's good news about income pretty much everywhere over the past decade.

You would have expected in 2008–2009 to see a dramatic reversal in progress in poverty and income. There was a slowdown. They didn't drop as far as the West has, and they bounced back faster. Not even the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression reversed the progress.

If you look at child mortality, Africa has had a spectacular decade. In a four- or five-year period, for example, Senegal reduced child mortality by two-fifths. It's a big drop.

The past ten years have seen dramatically faster progress on reducing child mortality. We've halved the number of African children who are going to die before their fifth birthday. The progress has been historically unprecedented. Africa is leading the charge over the past decade in reducing child mortality. It's a wonderful story.

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Some experts still look at the glass as half empty. For example, Somalia and Burundi don't seem to be getting better at all. What's your response?

There is immense unnecessary suffering worldwide. I don't want to say the glass is full. It's a long way from full.

There is misery of every form in places like the Congo [DRC]. I don't want to sound ridiculously positive in the face of such misery. Yet even in the Congo, from the survey evidence, child mortality is dropping. It's dropping from hideous highs, but it is dropping. There are small signs of progress—green shoots if you will.

The people in the Congo and in other war-torn regions are changing behaviors that are improving lives, especially of their kids. Even in the Congo, vaccination rates are up, and more parents are telling their kids to wash their hands after they go to the bathroom.

That is reducing avoidable mortality. Even in extremely miserable places, there are green shoots.

So new research confirms a critical role for parents?

One study looked at simple community-level interventions. The idea that newborn kids are unclean was prevalent in one community. Newborns weren't cleaned for the first 24 hours, which increased neonatal mortality dramatically.

Parents were encouraged to use safer birthing practices, and they were able to quite dramatically reduce rates of child mortality.

We should be worried about paternalism. In this particular case, I think we shouldn't be as concerned. These techniques are clearly working to save kids, and that's something that everybody wants. There are approaches that involve nudges—encouragement to behave in the right way, not making people behave in a different way.

A nice example is vaccines. Setting up a vaccine camp is quite complicated. If you get only a third of parents turning up to get their kids vaccinated, it's not as effective. So the MIT Poverty Action Lab gave parents a bag of lentils if they got their kids vaccinated. Now lentils are not that expensive, but that little incentive dramatically increased the number of parents who turned up.

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Who should get the lion's share of the credit for reducing poverty?

People. At the bottom of all this are parents making different decisions. It's all very well building a school, but if parents don't want their kids to go to that school, it's really hard to make them.

What is driving up enrollment rates? Parents making the active decision to send their kids to school. What is driving up increased vaccination rates? Parents making the decision to get their kids vaccinated.

I don't want to sound ridiculously positive in the face of such misery. Yet even in the Congo, child mortality is dropping. There are small signs of progress—green shoots if you will.

After people, there's a lot of credit to go around. I'm happy to give quite a lot to NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and civil society, to governments, and to the United Nations. The halving of child mortality rates over 25 years is a big enough story that there is a lot of credit to go around.

Is the faith sector being particularly effective in improving the lives of children?

There's a bunch of basic child-health interventions in particular, but also education interventions, where what you want is universal coverage. You want every kid getting access.

The best way to do it long term certainly involves the government, but not necessarily the government doing all of it. Universal delivery of a service has to involve the government.

Having said that, if you look at some of the most exciting advances in how we provide services sustainably and more efficiently, they're coming out of faith-based organizations and other NGOs. Once you set up a government program, government is wedded to it. They have political capital attached to it.

If you want innovation and change, you want outsiders. Many kids in India spend seven years in school and learn nothing. But Acer India [an educational assessment nonprofit] is running some of the most exciting experiments on how we improve test scores. Can you bring in contract teachers? Can you reduce class sizes? Can you use computers? They're throwing changes at the problem and very carefully measuring what happens.

Outside groups are not wedded to the current system for all sorts of reasons. We see it all the time in child health. Who is it that comes up with the way to increase the number of people to turn up to vaccine camps? Faith-based organizations, NGOs.

We talked about the importance of parents acting differently. I would probably put child sponsorship in this category. I'm glad to hear it makes a difference, [but] on an individual basis in a cost-effectiveness measure, it's probably quite expensive for the changes you're making.

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And you're making an 8-to-10 year commitment when you sponsor a child.

It's a lot of money, compared with how much is being spent on that kid locally. There could be spillover effects, if other parents who have one kid being sponsored see the impact on that kid, and then look into finding the money to do it for their other kids.

Faith-based organizations and NGOs have a reputation for not being in it for themselves. They're more likely to change norms than are the government or local agencies.

A norm change in a village would be believing that girls can go to school.

Right. Or that it's okay to have skin contact with your kid in the first 24 hours after birth. It is quite likely that NGOs and faith-based organizations coming in working on those things will have greater credibility than would a contractor or the local government. If faith-based organizations can find places where they can leverage the impact of their money, where by spending money on a few people, they can create change over time that spreads to the rest—that's a powerful role.

Do you have any concerns about the basic child-sponsorship model?

Some of these programs don't work as well as others. That has to do with careful monitoring and making sure that the kids get the benefits rather than somebody else, and that applies to any development program.

The individual connection, especially if the kid is writing to you, means you might have some independent way of verifying whether your money is actually doing good.

I'm also concerned about the cost effectiveness. But along with that concern comes a kind of reality check, which is that these people might not be giving money at all if they did not have an individual connection with somebody.

If my choice is between a terribly effective program with no funding and a slightly less effective program with funding, I'll take the second.

We have to be realistic. It's a painful debate. We have to do the painful moral calculus, when we can, of cost effectiveness in health. We also have to be cognizant of the fact that the pot of money changes depending on how much people want there to be a pot of money in the first place.

I'm quite willing to believe that there are more effective programs to improve outcomes for kids in the developing world than even the more effective child-sponsorship programs. But I'd still rather have the less effective program with money, thank you very much.

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You stress the essential need for individual initiative. Are you laying down the gauntlet for individuals to take responsibility?

Yes, one problem I have with the current dominant marketing strategy for many NGOs and even some faith-based organizations is that they say, "It's all miserable in Africa."

That gives people a moral out. If it's all miserable in Africa, and it's always been all miserable in Africa despite all of what we've done today to try and help, that means your money will be wasted if you spend it there. So you don't.

You may have a theoretical moral duty to help those who are in considerably worse straits than yourself. But if you cannot actually help them, you can spend the money on a new iPad.

I think the world is getting better. Partially it is connected with the support of NGOs, faith-based groups, governments, taxpayer dollars at work—all of that. It means that actually—yeah, sorry—we have a moral responsibility.

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