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[Review] The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World

March 16, 2016

The story Steven Radelet tells in The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World begins with the fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of 1989. Marking the end of the Cold War, the wall's fall ushered in an era of unprecedented development progress across much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But as the event itself faded into history, many viewed the breakdown of global order into ethnic cleansing, economic instability, the emergence of Islamist terrorism, and an upswing in refugee crises with growing alarm — a pessimistic view that, Radelet argues, was and is misplaced.

Cover_the_great_surgeIn his book, Radelet, who chairs the Global Human Development Program at Georgetown University and serves as economic advisor to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, highlights progress in more than a hundred developing countries across "four critical dimensions" of development: poverty, income, health and education, and democracy and governance. Between 1993 and 2011, Radelet notes, the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 a day) fell from nearly two billion, or 42 percent of the global population, to just over one billion, or 17 percent. Meanwhile, GDP per capita in developing countries grew more than 70 percent on average, with population-weighted real incomes rising some 90 percent since 1994.

Over roughly the same period, the mortality rate for children under the age of 5 fell from 10 percent to 4.7 percent. With maternal mortality and fertility rates also down significantly, children in developing countries today are far healthier and better educated than they have been at any time in memory, while the percentage of girls finishing primary school has risen from 50 percent to 80 percent and the percentage of girls completing secondary school has doubled, from 30 percent to 60 percent. Whether as cause or product of these trends, it is no coincidence that the number of democracies globally has jumped from seventeen in 1983 to fifty-six in 2013 (not counting countries that claim to be democracies but merely pay lip service to fair and open elections).

To be sure, some of this progress occurred before the late 1980s. But burdened by the legacy of colonialism and factors such as unfavorable geography, inadequate resources, and endemic disease, many developing countries found themselves struggling to break free of the "poverty trap." What made their "sudden" ascent possible, Radelet argues, was the convergence of three post-Cold War factors: global geopolitical conditions becoming more conducive to development; increased opportunities provided by a new wave of globalization and the spread of new technologies; and the rapid development of the skills and capabilities needed to take advantage of those opportunities.  

Take the first. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and a rump Russia lost their appetite (at least temporarily) for proxy wars in the developing world as well as their costly habit of propping up Communist and right-wing dictatorships in countries like Bangladesh, Benin, Chile, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Panama. Moreover, as Communist and authoritarian ideologies lost their credibility among much of the world's population, a consensus began to form around the efficacy of market-based approaches to economic growth and development, an emphasis on individual freedoms, and respect for basic human rights. In time, "[d]eveloping countries around the world began to build institutions more conducive to growth and social progress," Radelet writes. "The doors opened to new possibilities."

At the same time, deeper connections powered by increased global trade, unfettered financial flows, and access to new technologies gave people and governments in developing countries new opportunities to boost household income, improve health and educational systems, and strengthen democratic governance — all of which contributed to rising productivity and incomes — while campaigns to provide vaccines, oral rehydration therapy, and anti-retroviral therapy helped save millions of lives.

Leveraging those opportunities required a third factor — which Radelet characterizes as "strong leadership, smart policy choices, and committed and courageous action at the village, local, and national levels." Indeed, the critical need for democratically elected leaders supported by business, civil society, labor groups, clergy, and social justice leaders is nowhere more apparent, he writes, than in the stark difference between the relative economic health of South Africa, where the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela’s leadership in the 1990s focused on reconciliation and inclusiveness, and neighboring Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe has ruled with an iron fist for almost four decades and per capita GDP growth has averaged -2 percent since 1995. Extrapolated to the wider world, the lesson is clear: the combination of strong, effective leadership, smart decision making, and rules-based fairness helps foster stronger national institutions, which in turn leads to economic and social progress and rising confidence among a country's citizens in their elected leaders and democracy.

For all his optimism, Radelet is careful to acknowledge the exceptions to his thesis, as well as the challenges that remain. Number one on that list is China, which he calls the "dragon in the room." While it's true that the economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping starting in the late 1970s helped reduce the share of the Chinese population living in extreme poverty from 84 percent in 1981, to 55 percent in 1993, to 6 percent in 2011 — an unprecedented achievement — liberalization of the country's political reforms after the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square has been incremental, with the vigorous suppression of dissent in an increasingly restive population becoming an all-too-common occurrence. And history shows, says Radelet, that growth under authoritarian rule eventually stalls, leading to one of two scenarios: either more repression and even slower growth, or an embrace of greater political freedoms and "a stronger foundation for sustained innovation and growth." Which way China turns under its current and future leadership is anyone's guess.  

China also looms large in the question of whether "the great surge" can be sustained in the face of rising global energy needs, the growing likelihood of resource shortages, the impact of unchecked climate change, and regional conflict and terrorism arising from those and other problems. Radelet himself is unsure as to the answer and lays out three scenarios: If the conditions that catalyzed the "great surge" are maintained — by, for example, the world's developed economies working with Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Turkey, and other rising powers to support growth-friendly conditions and greater economic integration — progress will continue. Even then, however, it won't be easy to eliminate extreme poverty, especially now that growth in China seems to have topped out. Indeed, future progress in eliminating global poverty will depend on still-poor countries like Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and dozens of African nations, all of which are in need of fundamental political change, picking up the slack.  

Even that might not be enough. If the world was to experience an economic downturn on the scale of the 2008 global financial crisis; if developing economies fail to diversify into new products and services, invest in skills training, or upgrade their infrastructure; and/or if the threat of a new global pandemic and drug-resistant strains of lethal diseases becomes reality, then all bets are off. Radelet's third scenario, in which population pressures, the inexorable effects of climate change, and "resource wars" over food, water, and energy sources not only derail progress but reverse it, is even more dire. Could it happen? Consider global energy demand, which is expected to double over the next thirty years, with the demand for coal increasing 47 percent by 2040; or fresh water demand, which is expected to rise more than 50 percent by 2030; or food production requirements, which are expected to jump 70 percent by 2050. In fact, Radelet glosses over the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, an increasingly nationalistic China, and a declining Russia to ask what he believes is the more important question: Is achieving continued development progress alongside environmental sustainability even possible?

His answer to that question is yes — if leaders of advanced and developing economies take action now. That means the United States, Europe, Japan, China, and India must lead the way in investing in research and innovation in the areas of food production and clean energy, work together to cut carbon emissions, and continue to press and accept efforts aimed at democratizing multilateral institutions such the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization. For their part, leaders of developing economies must continue to focus on advancing prosperity and democracy in their countries through good governance, support for more inclusive and sustainable growth, and expanded access to education, health care, and a real social safety net.  

Where does foreign aid fit into the picture? Radelet notes that development assistance, bolstered by multilateral efforts such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals campaign, contributed a "moderate positive impact" to the surge he writes about elsewhere. He has high praise for public-private initiatives like the Green Revolution and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, as well as the institutions that fund them. But if development progress is to continue, he argues, foreign aid must be strengthened, with more assistance directed to low-income democracies and those already playing a significant role in the global economy and global decision making. He also calls on aid agencies to do more to partner with universities, foundations, and private business to support research, disseminate new technologies, and encourage private investment.

Written in clear, accessible prose, The Great Surge tells a compelling story about the development progress made over the last quarter-century and the context that enabled it. If the author’s optimism left this reader wishing for a more specific action plan beyond maintaining and strengthening the factors responsible for the surge in the first place, perhaps that's to be expected. The globe is an increasingly interdependent place, and simple solutions to the formidable challenges we face are unlikely to create the change we need. Stephen Radelet's book helps readers understand what can be achieved in terms of development when the right historical, political, economic, and social conditions are in place. It's up to us to keep the momentum going.

Kyoko Uchida is PND's features editor. For more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

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