Steve spoke at the Hewlett Foundation last month about his new book as part of our ongoing “shop talk” series in which we invite outside speakers to share their knowledge and expertise with our staff. In The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World, Steve argues that, contrary to the popular view of the Global South as “hopelessly mired in extreme poverty” and corruption, the last thirty years have been marked by unprecedented progress for the world’s poor. Following his inspiring and data-driven talk, I had the chance to ask him a few questions.
Sarah Lucas: I hope and imagine your book will inspire young people to consider the global development field as a career path. What are the most important skills and experience now, as compared to when you and Carrie, your wife to whom the book is dedicated, entered the global development field through your Peace Corp service in the 1980s?
Steve Radelet: The most important thing is to get experience early in your professional career living and working in developing countries. It doesn’t matter so much what you do –World Teach, Peace Corps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Grass roots Soccer, NGO, private company, or social entrepreneur—so long as you get one or two years of experience on the ground. There is simply no substitute for it in learning about the issues, constraints, and opportunities in development. In addition, of course, you need a solid academic foundation, both at an undergraduate level and, increasingly, at the master’s degree level (such as our Global Human Development Program at Georgetown). No matter what your area of specialization, you need some solid training in economics, political science, statistics, and management. It is essential to have strong skills in writing, quantitative analysis, and public speaking. And then on that foundation, build your deeper specialized knowledge in health, education, economics, environment, humanitarian relief, or other critical areas in development.
Sarah Lucas: For the analysis in the book, you use standard methods of assessing economic improvement, in terms of poverty levels, and rates of income growth, overall and per person, alongside a wide variety of other measures of social, political, and environmental change. What are the advantages and disadvantages of focusing on a relatively narrow economic measure to capture wellbeing? What potential value do you see, if any, in metrics that integrate social and environmental conditions, such as the as multi-dimensional poverty indices, “happiness” metrics, and sustainable development indices?
Steve Radelet: Far too often economists (in particular) focus almost exclusively on measure of income and GDP per capita, and equate that with wellbeing or development. Of course, these measures are powerful, and it is clear that widespread progress over time can’t happen without sustained and inclusive economic growth. But it is important to complement these economic indicators with other measures of development, which is why I dedicate a full chapter to poverty, another to health and education, and another to political change and conflict, and include discussion of nutrition, agricultural production, access to water and sanitation, and changes in political rights and civil liberties. Development is a broad and multi-faceted process, and we need to look at a wide variety of measures to get the full picture and to understand the interactions between them. This is one reason why the Millennium Development Goals and new Sustainable Development Goals are so helpful.
Having said that, I am not a big fan of creating a variety of indices that combine these separate indicators into one ranking. Doing so requires making many questionable assumptions (what to include and exclude? How much weight does each component receive? What scale do you use, since each is part is measured so differently?). These assumptions can make big differences in the ranking outcomes, which calls into question the validity of the rankings. So I prefer to look at the individual components separately and explore what they mean, why they change, and how they interact with other indicators, rather than artificially combining them into a less meaningful index.
Sarah Lucas: Some might argue that the progress of the last three decades has been the relatively low-hanging fruit, driven by favorable global dynamics, and that the remaining development challenges are more complex and intractable, while global dynamics are much less favorable. What would you say to that?
Steve Radelet: It’s a little hard to argue that this progress is just low-hanging fruit, since for centuries these countries made relatively little progress. If it was so easy, why wasn’t it done before? Moreover, it sure didn’t look like low-hanging fruit when the surge of progress started. Twenty-five years ago, most analysts looking at the end of the Cold War, the beginning of globalization, the huge overhang of the debt crisis, widespread war, and the raging HIV/AIDS pandemic, argued that developing countries were in for more stagnation, not a surge of progress (see, for example, Robert Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy,” or, much earlier, Paul Erlich’s “The Population Bomb”). The challenges 25 years ago were at least as difficult as those we face today –they just look easier in hindsight. That’s not to say that the challenges that developing countries face today are easy—far from it.
But here is the key point: developing countries have undertaken deep, fundamental changes in the last two decades that make them better prepared to handle new challenges. They have many more trained and skilled leaders, far more women that are finally getting an education alongside political and economic opportunities, many more technological advances available, and are on far better financial footing than they were 25 years ago. Meeting the next set of challenges—especially climate change—will not be easy, and is far from guaranteed. But most developing countries are far better positioned to meet these challenges than they were two decades ago.
Sarah Lucas: The refugee crisis wasn’t so starkly on the radar screen when you were writing the book. How does the current crisis, and wealthy nations’ response to it, change your narrative, if at all?
The book is intentionally written looking at big changes over decades, and therefore goes beyond immediate crises to the broader and longer trends that we sometimes miss when we look at today’s problems. Of course, the crisis in Syria and the refugee problem that has resulted from it are major problems that deserve serious attention. Over the last two decades there have been many serious crises that seemed like they might upend development progress, including the Asian financial crisis; famines in Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia; the world food crisis of 2007; the global financial crisis; the Iraq war; and many others. The amazing thing is the extent of continued progress despite these crises. Syria and the related refugee crisis demand immediate action, but they do not undermine the broader story line of the great surge of global development progress.