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Reliving the '50s: The Big Push, Poverty Traps, and Takeoffs in Economic Development


  • William Easterly



The classic narrative of economic development -- poor countries are caught in poverty traps, out of which they need a Big Push involving increased aid and investment, leading to a takeoff in per capita income -- has been very influential in development economics since the 1950s. This was the original justification for foreign aid. The narrative lost credibility for a while but has made a big comeback in the new millennium. Once again it is invoked as a rationale for large foreign aid programs. This paper applies very simple tests to the various elements of the narrative. Evidence to support the narrative is scarce. Poverty traps in the sense of zero growth for low income countries are rejected by the data in most time periods. There is evidence of divergence between rich and poor nations in the long run, but this does not imply zero growth for the poor countries. Moreover, this divergence is more associated with institutions rather than the disadvantages of initial income. The idea of the takeoff does not garner much support in the data. Takeoffs are rare in the data, most plausibly limited to the Asian success stories. Even then, the takeoffs are not associated with aid and investment as the standard narrative would imply.

Suggested Citation

  • William Easterly, 2005. "Reliving the '50s: The Big Push, Poverty Traps, and Takeoffs in Economic Development," Working Papers 65, Center for Global Development.
  • Handle: RePEc:cgd:wpaper:65

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Blackburn, Keith & Forgues-Puccio, Gonzalo F., 2007. "Distribution and development in a model of misgovernance," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 51(6), pages 1534-1563, August.
    2. Tarp, Finn, 2006. "Aid and Development," MPRA Paper 13171, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    3. Dalgaard, Carl-Johan & Erickson, Lennart, 2009. "Reasonable Expectations and the First Millennium Development Goal: How Much Can Aid Achieve?," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 37(7), pages 1170-1181, July.
    4. Joshua Aizenman & Mark M. Spiegel, 2010. "Takeoffs," Review of Development Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 14(2), pages 177-196, May.
    5. Benjamin F. Jones & Benjamin A. Olken, 2008. "The Anatomy of Start-Stop Growth," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 90(3), pages 582-587, August.

    More about this item


    economic development; poverty trap; foreign aid;

    JEL classification:

    • O1 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development
    • O4 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity
    • F33 - International Economics - - International Finance - - - International Monetary Arrangements and Institutions
    • F34 - International Economics - - International Finance - - - International Lending and Debt Problems
    • F35 - International Economics - - International Finance - - - Foreign Aid

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