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.
In 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."