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The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World by Steven Radelet

Published in November of 2016

Every academic that I know is suffering from a low-grade politically induced depression.  This Trump era malaise is not confined to my liberal higher ed friends.  I hang out with more than a few libertarian and conservative types (economists mostly), and they all seem a bit bewildered by the going-ons in our nation’s capital.

My advice to all my disconsolate academic friends is to cheer up. 

Despite the immediate evidence to the contrary, the world is indeed becoming a better place.  Some parts of the rich world may have gone temporarily insane, but the story for the rest of the world (where 80 percent of people live) is one of growth and improvement.

Steven Radelet’s new book, The Great Surge, does an excellent job of synthesizing three decades of the world’s most important economic, demographic, political, and social trends.  Since the early 1990s the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by nearly 1 billion.  Hundreds of millions of people, living in dozens of small countries, have seen their incomes double (in real terms) in the past 30 years.

The biggest beneficiaries of economic growth in emerging countries has been kids.  Today, the number of children that die every year from preventable disease or violence is 6 million below the levels seen in the early 1990s.  The decline of childhood mortality has caused women in the developing world to choose to have less babies - as a baby born today is much more likely to survive than in recent memory - bringing about rapid decreases in the total fertility rate (TFR) throughout most of the emerging world.  

Improvements amongst developing countries have not been restricted to income and fertility.  As Radelet writes about changes since the early 1990s, “...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”.  (Kindle Locations 111-116)

What is most amazing about all this world economic, social, and political progress is that it is so little recognized.  Ask most college students (and maybe professors) about what has occurred throughout the world in the last few decades, and you are likely to hear only about rising inequality, political upheavals, refugee crises, and epidemics.  

Radelet does not claim that the world is a perfect place, or that there is not much work to be done in improving the lives of billions of people.  His point is that we should recognize the incredibly positive changes that have occurred, and find ways to confidently build on these successes.  

This perspective is particularly important just as our elected politicians are questioning the value of the fundamental policies that have caused global extreme poverty to decline and global health to improve.  Radelet identifies 3 factors as driving this “great surge” in global well-being.  They are the spread of democracy with the end of the Cold War, the growth of global trade combined with emergence of new technologies (such as the internet and mobile phones), and the cumulative impact of foreign aid.  

I’m a big fan of finding a book for everyone on campus to read and discuss.  I’d like to suggest that all of us read a series of books - books all about how and why the world has gotten better - and is likely to continue to do so in the future.

In higher education we prize the ability to think critically about our world.  This skill in critical thinking, however, should not be conflated with pessimistic thinking.  It is possible to be optimistic about both the future of the world, and one’s own future, and still be a good critical thinker.  

We need to offer an alternative narrative to the dominant decline thinking that pervades too much of academia.

I highly recommend that The Great Surge be part of this campus-wide reading list.  To this book, I’d add:

Can you add some books to this list?

What are you reading?

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