by Matt Ellison
The progress in global human development over the past few decades has been one of the “greatest achievements in human history,” Professor Steven Radelet said in a talk on Monday. Radelet, who is Director of the Global Human Development Program in the School of Foreign Service, discusses these successes in his new book The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World (Simon & Schuster, 2015). He spoke about the book in Riggs Library, followed by a conversation with Dean Joel Hellman and audience questions.
Radelet began by calling attention to the great progress for the global poor. “We live at a time with the greatest progress in reduction of poverty in the world,” Radelet said. However, most people are unaware of these remarkable developments, according to opinion polls, and many wrongly believe that conditions are bleak for the world’s poorest.
Great Progress Beyond China and India
In fact, the world has seen great progress, Radelet explained, well beyond the prominent cases of China and India. Since the 1990s, more than 700 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Improvements in children’s health, global life expectancy, education (particularly girls’ education), and rising incomes have fueled this progress. Between 1960 and 2013, the death rate of children under five had fallen from 22% to 5% and average life expectancy too has risen dramatically. Civil conflict has also fallen, with 70% fewer people dying in battle compared to the 1980s.
These gains, according to Radelet, did not happen by accident. The end of the Cold War, the rise of globalization, foreign assistance programs, and effective leadership were the primary drivers of this progress.
“Can this great progress continue?” Radelet asked. “The gains are fragile” and “at risk,” he said, because the institutions that made them possible have not been solidified.
Three Possible Scenarios for the Future
“I don’t predict the future,” Radelet said of part three of his book, “but I lay out three scenarios,” for what the future might look like.
In a positive future, gains continue. Another 700 million people would rise out of extreme poverty. The fundamental institutional developments in recent years would combine with new ideas to allow a continuation of current trends. Democracy could deepen and continue to spread.
But not all signs give reason for optimism. In his second vision for the future, Radelet says progress would “diminish and stall.” China could keep up its own development progress, but most other countries would slow down. Technology would replace low wage jobs, having disproportionate effects on the global poor. And with the United States failing to lead on the world’s biggest problems, Radelet added, we would see a retreat in democracy.
The third scenario would be even worse. “We have climate change, which most developing countries had almost nothing to do with, and yet they will bear the greatest burden,” Radelet said. And not just that: population growth, climate change, resource scarcity and health challenges all have the potential to derail progress and increase tensions and conflict. He said without international leadership and resolve, this picture looks more likely.
“None of those outcomes are fated. Those outcomes will be determined by decisions and choices that we make, individually, collectively, as societies, and as the world.”
Challenges That Lie Ahead
“It’s easy for us to see the big challenges that lie ahead—climate change, population growth. It’s much harder always for us to see the human innovations that can come forward to help solve those problems.”
Global leadership is essential for continued progress. “The United States needs to lead,” Radelet said, as a model of democracy working effectively and in the specific areas of climate change and innovation.
Leadership in developing countries is needed too, according to Radelet. It is more effective today than in the past but it must be “translated into better institutions and more permanent norms and ideas.”
“None of this is easy. It’s a very ambitious agenda. But it’s never easy.” Recalling the remarkable progress in recent decades, Radelet said, “The agenda going forward is no more ambitious than what has been accomplished over the last 60 or 70 years.”
What the future holds, according to Radelet, rests not on capabilities but on choices. “We have everything we need to make the choices and to get this done. I’m not at all certain that we will make the choices and have the courage and the leadership to make the investments and make this happen. That’s the big question.”
“Georgetown has a big role to play in terms of our teaching, our courses, working with our alumni who are in many positions of leadership, and our research—researching into issues around global institutions and how they need to be remade for the years to come. We have a big role to play.”
Concluding his talk, Radelet called for people to seize the opportunity to invent solutions and put them into action. “The stakes are really high not just for the world’s poorest countries but for the rich countries as well. But I do believe the opportunity is within our grasp for years to come, to further reduce poverty, to expand the reach of development and personal freedoms, and to continue to improve health and education around the world. It’s an opportunity that we must seize.”