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The case for helping others

Does development aid work? Yes, and economist Steven Radelet has the data to prove it


Pessimism is in style. We keep hearing that things have gotten worse. But is that true? Steven Radelet asserts that around the world, people’s lives have improved dramatically over the last 20 years and challenges us to look at the data: Since the early 1990s, 6 million fewer children die each year from disease, millions more girls attend school, and more than a billion people are no longer in extreme poverty.

Radelet, a development economist at Georgetown University whose most recent book is "The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World," says the key to understanding progress is stepping back and looking at the big picture.

“We tend to focus on national leaders, but there are hundreds and thousands and millions of local leaders who, collectively, are enormously important in terms of progress,” says Steven Radelet.

“We often look at individual countries, or we look at a span of a few years. We miss the motion picture because we’re looking at a few still shots,” he says. “There has been more progress among the global poor over the last 25 years than at any time in human history.” He concedes that this progress hasn’t reached everyone, but says the “untold story” is of reductions in poverty, increases in incomes, improvements in health, and expansions of freedom around the world.

Radelet, the director of the Global Human Development Program at Georgetown and an economic adviser to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, has worked in dozens of developing countries, primarily in Africa and Asia, for 30 years. The focus of his work has been on economic growth, poverty reduction, education, trade, finance, and debt management. He has advised governments and held senior positions at USAID and the U.S. departments of State and Treasury. Radelet spoke with Contributing Editor Vanessa Glavinskas from Washington, D.C.

Q: U2 frontman and philanthropist Bono called "The Great Surge" a study of  “humanity’s greatest hits.” What do you consider the top global accomplishments over the last two decades?

A: The advances are enormous – poverty reduction, income growth, improvements in health and education, reduction in conflict and war, spread of democracy. But I think there are a couple of highlights.

The number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank as less than $1.90 a day) has declined by 1 billion people over the last 25 years. It started to fall in the 1990s and it fell incredibly rapidly. A lot of the action is in China and India, but it’s happening in about 60 countries around the world. 

There have also been widespread improvements in health. Life expectancy at birth has increased in developing countries from 50 years to 65 years. People are living longer because we’re making progress on fighting diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria and eradicating smallpox and getting close to eradicating polio, with the great help of Rotary. Since 1960, the number of children around the world who die before their fifth birthday has fallen by 76 percent. This is still too high, but it’s an enormous improvement. Millions of children are living longer, they’re healthier, they’re going to school, and they’re not as poor. What’s notable about this is that the improvement in child health is universal: The rate of child death has fallen in every single country in the world since 1980. I don’t know of any other socioeconomic indicator that has improved in every country in the world at the same time. This is one of the greatest achievements in human history – and almost no one knows about it.

Finally, about 80 percent of girls now complete primary school. A few decades ago that figure was below 50 percent. We’ve almost doubled the share of girls who are getting a primary school education, and we know that when we educate a girl, she will have more income opportunities, she will get married later, she will have fewer children – and her children will be healthier, more likely to go to school, and have more income opportunities. We know these things with certainty. But there’s still a long way to go. Many more girls need access, the quality of education needs to improve, and girls need to get from primary to secondary school.

Q: What have we done right over the last 20 years to get to this point?

A: Some of it is due to ending what we were doing wrong – in particular, I mean the Cold War and the colonialism that preceded it that fell apart in the late 1980s and ’90s. Today’s developing countries lived under colonialism for a long time. They were not able to set up their own systems of government. They did not have good education or health systems. Then colonial governments were largely replaced by dictators that the United States or the Soviet Union supported, and frankly, in those days we didn’t care that much about overall progress. It was all about defeating the Soviet Union and communism.

That began to fall apart after Mao Zedong died and China started moving in a new direction under Deng Xiaoping. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and communism crumbled with it. That led to a movement toward market-based economic policies and systems that corresponded with a move away from dictatorship toward democracy. About two-thirds of developing countries today are democracies.

Global integration that increased opportunities for trade has been hugely important. Developing countries now have much greater access to technologies from global markets: agricultural technologies, health technologies like vaccines, new sources of water, new sources of energy, information technologies, mobile phones. It’s through globalization that a child in northern Mozambique gets a vaccine that’s produced by a factory in Indiana.

And we’re seeing a whole new generation of leaders in developing countries – government leaders, civil society leaders, and business leaders who are moving their countries in new directions. 

Q: Rotary is made up of such leaders. What role can Rotarians play in global progress?

A: We tend to focus on national leaders, but there are hundreds and thousands and millions of local leaders who, collectively, are enormously important in terms of progress. What we see with groups like Rotary are local leaders making progress on a particular issue. Where the old colonial governments or the old dictators might have stopped them, now they’re free to go forward and they’re using their intelligence and financial resources and their energy to fight polio or buy textbooks for local schools or provide mentoring for small businesses.

Q: Still, progress has not yet come to everyone. Who has been left behind?

A: The progress I talk about is affecting about two-thirds of developing countries. It’s having a positive impact on hundreds of millions of people. But about a third of developing countries are not making much progress at all, except in health. Those countries are the ones we see in the news, and that is why we think there’s almost no progress. If you turn on the television or listen to the radio, we’re always hearing about what’s going wrong with the world and not what’s going right.

We don’t hear that malaria deaths have been cut in half, and we don’t hear about successful elections in Ghana or Indonesia. We hear about failed elections and violence and disease outbreaks. I think that leads us astray.

But progress hasn’t happened everywhere. Progress hasn’t happened in countries that are still led by dictators: places like Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Places with ineffective governments like Haiti or Venezuela, which has moved from a democracy to what’s effectively a dictatorship. We still have many countries where the leadership is quite poor. Although overall there is far less conflict than 30 years ago, of the countries that are left behind, many are still involved in conflict or are geographically isolated, like Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, or Mali.

Q: Why do we seem to forget what was bad about the past?

A: To some extent you’re asking about the psychology of human thinking, about which I don’t claim to be an expert. But some psychologists argue that humans are programmed, as a matter of self-preservation, to focus on risks. We are programmed to focus on what’s going wrong and not necessarily on what’s going right. A second reason is that memories fade. We tend to think of the good old days, when, in many ways, the past was much worse. We forget, when we think about developing countries, that in the 1980s almost all of Central America was at war and almost all of Latin America was run by dictators. Colombia signed a peace agreement in November, which means that there are no active conflicts in the Western Hemisphere for the first time in a long time.

Q: In the United States, we’ve been hearing the theme that things are worse than they used to be. Is that true? 

A: We do have our problems and our struggles. In the United States, we haven’t made as much progress in the last 30 years. Our median income has not changed much, although it finally did rise in recent years. Income inequality has gotten worse. But is the progress in other parts of the world responsible for the problems we have here at home?

I believe that we, as a country, have failed to respond appropriately to the forces of globalization. We have not done enough to help American workers displaced by new competition from China or India or Brazil, and to adapt to changing technologies. We need to step up our game in education, in training programs, apprenticeship programs, in investing in our infrastructure. People are uneasy about the rise of other countries because it puts pressure on some Americans. But I believe, and history has shown, that when other countries are more prosperous and better governed, that is good for us.

The conflict we see in the world is not from countries that have made great progress. It’s from the countries that have been left behind. That’s why we need to expand progress, but we also need to do a much better job of investing in Americans who have been left behind. The two are related. It’s a failing of our political system when we have a knee-jerk reaction to stop progress elsewhere, to close our borders, to shut down trade, when a much better solution would be to continue our progress, to invest in our own people and our own infrastructure to make us more competitive.

Q: Right now, about 65 million people are displaced around the world. What type of destabilizing effect is this going to have?

A: The refugee crisis is to a great extent a result of the conflict in Syria and in the Middle East – the place in the world where there has been the least progress, economic as well as political. People leave their own country because there’s conflict and violence at home or because they’re not seeing the economic opportunities and the political freedoms that they want. The more that people see progress at home, the more economic opportunities they see for themselves and their children, the more they feel that there is a government that is responsive to them, the more they’re going to want to stay home. They’re not going to migrate to Europe and they’re not going to migrate here. 

Immigration from Mexico into the United States is actually down in the last eight years, in large part because Mexico is making a lot of development progress. Such progress is central to many of our long-term goals regarding security and stability around the world.

Q: How can Rotarians foster this kind of progress? 

A: Rotarians can tell the story of progress in their communities so that people don’t think that development efforts are doomed to fail. Rotary members can make the point that international aid is also good for the United States in the long run. Rotary programs improve health and education. Let people know that these things are working. I think Rotary’s work to end polio is a great example of how an organization can take on one issue and make a big impact.  I love speaking to Rotary groups because they’re fun and they’re energetic and they’re full of people who are committed to making the world a better place.

Q: What was the impetus for "The Great Surge?" Did you want to remind people that there is good news?

A: Over the last few years, I’ve been frustrated by the difference between the progress I see in developing countries and the suggestions I hear that there isn’t much progress being made. I’ve read in the press about how people believe that foreign aid doesn’t work, that there’s never any progress, and that the world is full of dictators and famine and poverty. But that’s not the story I am seeing on the ground, or what the development data tells me. I wrote the book to help equip people who are working in the field to push back on knee-jerk pessimism. So when someone says, “All these efforts do is fail, all they do is help corrupt dictators,” you can say, “No, actually, they’re working, and the corrupt dictators are going away, and countries are building up their own systems.” People can fight back against pessimism with data.

Q: If the last 20 years have been a period of great progress, what do you foresee for the next 20 years? 

A: The future depends on the action and commitment and decisions that we make today. In the book, I outline three scenarios. In one, uneven progress continues over the next 20 years, with a lot of false starts and steps backward. Another possibility is that progress stalls out because the world economy slows down and some countries struggle with leadership and elections. And a third possibility is that we go backward because of climate change or conflict or other issues. Any of those are possible. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The future depends on what we do today.” 

I believe that a scenario of continued progress is the most likely. That may reflect my confidence in human society to get things mostly right in the end. But it’s going to take big decisions. It’s going to take big investments in new technologies around alternative sources of energy. It’s going to take investing in things like desalinating water to bring down the cost of creating fresh water. We have the capacity, we have the brains, we have the resources. What I’m not so sure about is whether we’re going to be able to make the decisions to get there.

It’s not going to happen by itself. It’s going to take leadership and sacrifice and compromise and a willingness to work together. But if we do it, we will be much better off, along with the rest of the world. 

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