Navigating the Road to Riches

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A switchover of global growth engines is taking place. Developing economies as a whole are now the source of more than half of global GDP growth. As a result, concern has naturally shifted to a new question: Are there risks that some or many of these developing countries could fall prey to the “middle-income trap”?

The “middle-income trap” has captured many developing countries: they succeeded in evolving from low per capita income levels, but then appeared to stall, losing momentum along the route toward the higher income levels of advanced economies. Such a trap may well characterize the experience of most of Latin America since the 1980’s, and in recent years, middle-income countries elsewhere have expressed fears that they could follow a similar path. Does moving up the income ladder get harder the higher one climbs?

In most cases of successful evolution from low- to middle-income status, the underlying development process is broadly similar. Typically, there is a large pool of unskilled labor that is transferred from subsistence-level occupations to more modern manufacturing or service activities that do not require much upgrading of these workers’ skills, but nonetheless employ higher levels of capital and embedded technology.

The associated technology is available from richer countries and easy to adapt to local circumstances. The gross effect of such a transfer – usually occurring in tandem with urbanization – is a substantial increase in “total factor productivity,” leading to GDP growth that goes beyond what can be explained by the expansion of labor, capital, and other physical factors of production.