The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World

  • By Steven Radelet
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 368 pp.

How the lives of the poor have improved in the last half-century — and how that progress can continue.

In The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World, economist Steven Radelet convincingly argues that the lives of the poor around the world have improved dramatically beginning in the 1960s, and that this improvement accelerated markedly in the 1990s, when many factors that inhibited development were eliminated. He shows how and where policies, programs, and leaders have made a difference. His analysis is backed up, but not bogged down, by compelling statistics, and his writing is clear with good examples that elucidate key points.

The Great Surge provides a needed counterweight to the easy-to-believe storyline in the popular press and academic circles that little or no progress is being made. Radelet devotes considerable space to making sure the reader is indeed convinced that tremendous progress has been made in developing countries — in economic growth, reductions in poverty, health improvements, and education levels.

Radelet’s underlying argument is that “the combination of huge geopolitical shifts, changing economic and political systems, deepening globalization, access to new technologies, stronger leadership, and courageous action, created the conditions, opportunities, and drivers necessary for progress. The result was the great surge.”

Like building a puzzle, the author fits seminal works on specific problems of global development into a coherent analysis that ties those problems, the analysis, and the solutions together. How often have we read books and articles analyzing and proposing solutions to poverty, health issues, or conflict that sound good on their own, but are questionable when seen through the lens of country leadership or institutional development?

Radelet shows not only how economic growth, slowing population growth rates, and declines in child mortality reinforce each other, but how democracy and individual freedoms are just as connected, even central, to many of the improvements.

Without downplaying the problems, Radelet argues that foreign aid has been effective overall. He believes that critics have overstated their cases based on outdated evidence. The data, the examples, and other research he presents is persuasive — he wants the reader, and likely the public and policymakers, to recognize just how much progress has been made, despite the constant barrage of bad news from developing countries in the press.

Radelet is in a good position to take a broad view of progress in the developing world. He is on faculty at Georgetown University, was chief economist of USAID, and served as deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury for Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. He is an economic adviser to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and was a resident adviser to the Ministry of Finance in Indonesia and to the Ministry of Finance and Trade in the Gambia.

With this book, Radelet has provided a good guide to what works in developing countries for readers with an interest in world affairs and students of international development, as well as development practitioners and policymakers. His short summaries of influential books from other respected experts on global economic development provide an easy road map for readers interested in learning more.

The last chapters of the book discuss whether the great surge can be sustained and spread to other countries. Radelet lays out three possible futures in which progress continues, continues at slower rates, or is derailed. The chapter on derailment focuses mostly on climate change, with some attention to terrorism and tensions around the rise of China.

Radelet believes the surge can continue, but is far from certain it will. He reminds us that despite growing resource constraints “the ultimate resource is people themselves.” His three major forces behind the great surge of development rely, for the most part, on people — on “global conditions and leadership conducive to development, new opportunities driven by technology and market integration, and strong leadership and increased capabilities within developing countries themselves.”

Finally, the book lays out an agenda for reaching the more optimistic future, starting with developed countries taking care of their business at home and leading by example on democracy and climate change. He also makes the point that rich countries need to make changes in international institutions to give better voice to developing countries and thereby improve the legitimacy and effectiveness of those institutions.

He argues that developing countries themselves, their leadership, and their ability and dedication to build competent and effective institutions, are key to progress. And although development assistance can only play a supporting role, it should be more focused on the poorest countries.

Radelet has written an important book about what has worked — something all of us need to understand in order to continue the great surge.

Linda Nemec is an economic development practitioner, analyst, and observer. She has spent her career working with and in developing countries and is vice president of Navanti Group, a research and analysis company focused on countries in transition.

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