Steven Radelet gives us a history of the the modern world that will lift the doom and gloom set upon us by the popular narrative in the news media.
The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World by Steven Radelet, Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $28.00, Hardcover, November 2015, ISBN 9781476764788
The news around the world is bad: stagnant economic growth, rampant poverty, whole regions in conflict, refugee crises and, of course, war—particularly the one in Syria, with ISIS spilling over its border and all the elements of a global proxy war echoing old Cold War divisions. It’s a despondent and depressing scene, right?
But hold on for a minute… while all of that is true, when you pull back the lens and focus on the larger trends of recent decades, the story changes. It becomes quite positive, almost giddy, as explained by the Donald F. McHenry Chair in Global Human Development at Georgetown University, Steven Radelet, in his new book, The Great Surge.
Looking at the world from a historical perspective, or through the lens of this book, you’ll see:
We live at a time of the greatest development progress among the global poor in the history of the world. Never before have so many people, in so many developing countries, made so much progress in so short a time in reducing poverty, increasing incomes, improving health, reducing conflict and war, and spreading democracy.
Radelet tells a story of progress beginning immediately after World War II that has come in fits and starts and spurts, in different spots around the world, until the early 1990s when a number of events coalesced to bring about a great surge of progress that tapped into the inherent potential of populations previously stuck in poverty.
Since the early 1990s, 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. The average income for hundreds of millions of people in dozens of poor countries has more than doubled, 6 million fewer children die every year from disease, war and violence have declined significantly, average life expectancy has increased by six years, tens of millions more girls are in school, the share of people living in chronic hunger has been cut nearly in half, millions more people have access to clean water, and democracy—often fragile and imperfect—has become the norm rather than the exception in developing countries around the world.
The forces that drove this progress were the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism, combined with the rise of new technologies and economic globalization that integrated economies that had been previously cut-off. Those two forces combined with action on the ground and courageous leadership at all levels, and the results are astonishing, as the figures in the quote above attest to.
The book is broken into three parts: Part One tells the story of this great surge by the numbers (with localized anecdotes and histories to back it up), Part Two goes more in-depth into the global and local causes mentioned in the previous paragraph, and Part Three explores the possibilities for the future.
Though the overall picture he paints is positive, it is not sugarcoated. The statistics may tell us that more people have risen out of extreme poverty than at any time in human history, but Radelet is quick to note that most of those people are still poor—just not as poor, and not as stuck there—and inequalities persist both within and between countries. He points to where this inequality and unsustainable growth exists, but the overall trends he documents are extremely positive, made more so as he moves beyond economic indicators and into social ones: the fall of dictators, the expansion of democracy and improved governance, better healthcare that keeps more children alive and healthy, and educational systems that provide more social mobility as a new generation emerges. That last piece is key, because while many jobs in the developing world are still difficult, still subsistence level or barely above, human progress is often a long game.
He brings that point home with his own family history.
In today’s advanced economies, most of our ancestors worked in tough jobs just a generation or two ago. My grandfather John Radelet never attended high school. He started as a farm boy, then learned his trade as a carpenter and a logger in the deep woods north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. When he was a young man, during the winters, he and his friends would skate across the frozen Green Bay, make winter camp on the north side, and cut logs for the local sawmills, to be shipped by way of the Great Lakes. It had all the elements of sweatshop labor, except that as soon as he would begin to sweat, the sweat would freeze. My grandmother, who also never made it to high school, was a laundry woman for a hospital in Green Bay, where she did her share of sweating.
As difficult as they were, the jobs my grandparents had and the incomes they earned were far better than anyone in my family who preceded them could have imagined. They eventually owned a fine home overlooking a small park in Green Bay, complete with in-home plumbing, heating, electricity, refrigerator, and a 1928 Buick in the driveway … All of it would have seemed impossible just a generation or two before.
Some see the world economy to be a zero-sum game, and doubt that we can continue providing better lives for our children today amidst the rise of other nations. It’s an idea seemingly born out by the fact that as wages have increased exponentially elsewhere in the world, they have been stagnant here for nearly three decades. But Radelet also makes clear three real benefits to the developed world in the progress elsewhere: it brings greater stability to the world, as less failed states will provide less havens for terrorism and violence to spread around the world; it provides more opportunities for trade, investment, general business, and global income growth; and, finally, it helps win the war of ideas, and promotes values we extol: openness, prosperity, human rights, and freedom.
It’s not all good news. The way we, and others in the West, industrialized and grew our economies can and should not be replicated. As Radelet’s family story even hints at, some of that growth came amidst a loss of natural resources, deforestation, pollution, and general environmental degradation—all patterns recurring in today’s emerging economies. Those are very big and sensitive issues that need to be addressed as developing countries continue developing. But amidst the pervasive pessimism in the news media and some of the intellectual establishment, The Great Surge is an antidote to the doom and gloom. Addressing the problems that remain is important work, but it is work made easier if we acknowledge the great progress already made, hold steady on what is already in the works, and spread it to places still mired in poverty and violence where it has yet to gain hold. Yes, there is work left to be done, even in so-called advanced economies, and the work never ends, so lets get to it.
Consider that, in 1820, before the Industrial Revolution, “What we now consider extreme poverty was not just widespread; it was the norm, for just about everybody.” Just about everybody was “about 94 percent of world’s population.” Progress has been uneven, but it has also been unrelenting, and if you were able to choose anytime to be alive, today would be your best bet to be free of poverty—and there a multitude of reasons to believe those odds can continue improving.
Radelet doesn’t fall into the trap of making specific predictions for the future, though. In Part Three of the book, he imagines three different futures, from best-case scenario to worst, with any number of shades of gray in between. But the great hope is that while there have been many economic “miracles” and quick jumps forward in addressing one aspect of development or another in different places at different times, “What is remarkable about these changes” the ones happening today, Radelet insists, “is not so much the progress in one area but the dramatic improvement in all of these areas at the same time.”
And sometimes that progress comes where you least expect. With the help of the Marshall Plan, Western Europe rose like a phoenix out of the flames and ruins of World War II. The awakening of the Chinese economy came on the heels of the devastation of the Cultural Revolution. Both were the result of opening avenues to ideas and trade and people. As that work continues, our futures are becoming more inextricably linked, and if that work continues apace, it should create a world of plenty. With the right leadership and the right policies, the next two decades should see a rising tide that lifts all boats—indeed, that builds veritable ships of nation’s economies—even if the waves of change are sometime tumultuous, and some ships need to be steadied or saved along the way.