8 Aug 2017

Review: The Great Surge

I bought this 2015 book after hearing it praised as an excellent introduction to development economics. Its author, Steven Radelet, has several decades of experience as an academic, consultant and advisor to governments and agencies working to improve and implement programs to help people escape poverty, disease, ignorance and oppression.

The book is easy to read, with numerous examples and clear explanations of basic and advanced concepts, as well as an historical perspective that puts various development ideas into perspective. Although I am familiar with nearly all the ideas and examples in the book, I would be hard pressed to write so clearly and provide such a helpful framework to first time readers interested in these topics. The book thus provides a better introduction than either a textbook (too dense and/or inapplicable) or opinion piece (e.g., Easterly, Sachs, Moyo, et al.). That said, Radelet sometimes uses too many examples or repeats some points, so I suspect that the book could have been about 20 percent shorter and thus easier and clearer for the reader.

The book is organized into three parts: The Surge, the Catalysts, and The Future. The Surge explains how the end of the Cold War "freed" many countries from the need to align themselves to either the US or USSR as well as US or Soviet manipulation of those countries' politics in favor of their geopolitical goals. (Radelet explains how many bad colonial policies would have faced criticism in states that won their independence after WWII -- he lived and worked 5 years in Indonesia -- except for the influence of Cold War dynamics.) The upshot was that many regimes needed to adopt liberal political and economic policies as their leaders became more dependent on domestic legitimacy and lost the benefit of outside patronage. At the same time, there was also more opportunities for leaders who wanted to develop, as the end of a the First-World/Second World (US/USSR) dichotomy meant that neighbors could trade based on their comparative advantages rather than political orientation.

There are many exceptions to this generalization, but Radelet uses a dataset of 109 developing countries (neither too small nor too rich) to show how development surged for the average country in that dataset, i.e.,
My basic argument is that beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, many of the “unfreedoms” that had inhibited development began to be removed. 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.
Radelet notes that this basic progress did not get a lot of attention from academics or the press, as the former are more interested in studying specific examples in detail and the latter are more interested in extremes and disasters. These points make sense to me. I've visited over 100 countries and the most consistent thing I've learned is that everyday normal dominates occasional exceptional. (I'm writing this in Japan where we've not encountered a single earthquake, sumo wrestler or tea ceremony!)

Radelet also makes a good point when he reminds us that "development" is not just something bought off the shelf. In a world of private goods (e.g., mobile phones), it is indeed easy to set up towers and charge subscriptions to people who have bought handsets from factories on the other side of the world. In a world of collective goods, one cannot ignore or avoid the need to cooperate with neighbors in the provision of public safety, taxation and spending on education and healthcare, etc. It takes time and effort (and often outside existential threats) to form the institutions that separate the "developed" from "developing," i.e.,
The history of more mature democracies shows that it takes many years to build the institutions, public attitudes, expectations, checks on power, and other systems required for democracy and accountability to become established. They must be monitored and strengthened. Democracy is a process: there are no shortcuts, and there are many setbacks along the way. Occasionally countries can evolve into strong democracies in a decade or two, especially when they have strong and gifted leaders, a unified society, and a favorable regional context. However, it often takes longer.

It took more than a century for democracy to solidify in Western Europe, and the process continues to unfold today. It took the United States 185 years to achieve universal suffrage, with numerous violent conflicts, a bloody civil war, disputed elections, massacres of American Indians, a divisive battle for basic civil rights, recurrent episodes of corruption, countless inside business deals, and human rights abuses along the way. The United States, for all its many strengths, today is far from an ideal democracy. The history of the world’s oldest and strongest democracies teaches us that the democratic transition is neither fast nor easy, and that it does not progress in an orderly fashion.
Although this quote gives me hope in a time of Trump and Brexit,* it also provides a warning of how hard it is to rebuild what some politicians so casually dismiss. Indeed, Radelet's prescriptions for the hopeful path (in the Future section) rely on a US leader who is democratic, willing to work with international institutions, focused on dealing with climate change and willing to work with China -- four characteristics that define the anti-Trump and indicate just what a disaster Trump is for the world.

Returning to the book, Radelet discusses four catalysts: technology, globalization, leadership and foreign aid. He does a good job at describing how each can help as well as fail, i.e., technology that helps some countries get ahead of others, globalization which brings cheaper goods but job losses, and leaders who can make or break a country. The discussion of leadership fits well with his earlier points on democracy and the institutions that keep bad leaders from doing damage and help good leaders move the country ahead. On international aid, Radelet is right to note that it is often helpful but not the only means to development. In most cases, development takes place as individuals work out ways to improve their lives and provide a better future for their children. This path (better examined by Scott in Seeing Like a State and Two Cheers for Anarchism) also explains how development has slipped under the radar of politicians, wonks and journalists who can only understand anecdote or oversimplified explanations.

The final section on the Future covers three paths: all goes well, middling along, and things turn bad. These last chapters are a bit tiresome for someone who would like a concise trajectory but Radelet is right to explain how various forces interact to help or hinder development. Although it's hard to be optimistic and easy to be pessimistic (easy if you worry about over population, populism and climate change), Radelet makes a good point in enumerating the many helpful steps on trade, cooperation, governance and technology that aided development after the horrors of World War II. Those decentralized advances took place in a time when a nuclear war could have killed billions and environmental damages rose to terrifying levels -- problems with modern equivalents in terrorists threatening nuclear war and climate change.

It's not hard to see human civilization as a series of two steps forward and one step back developments, so perhaps that is a good default to use, should we be thinking probabilities more than possibilities.

Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR STARS for its useful overview of the development that we have seen, the causes of that development and where we, as humans, might go in the future. I recommend it to anyone seeking to understand the basics and our common future.

* The Economist on populists:
If there is anything that unites the policies of Mr Trump with Brexit and the beliefs of European populists, it is a promise to break free of constraints. But a populist upswing propelled by unhappiness with established institutions raises an awkward question: if these institutions are worthwhile, why are people so frustrated by them? The authors argue that populists highlight the short-run advantages of wrecking institutions while downplaying the long-run consequences.

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