The great surge of development progress— and the growing threats that could derail it

As hard as it is to believe from all the bad news in the press, we are living in the midst of the greatest surge of development progress amongst the global poor in human history. Since the early 1990s, 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, chronic hunger has been cut in half, infant death rates have fallen sharply, average incomes in most developing countries have more than doubled, millions more girls are in school, deaths from malaria and other diseases have declined dramatically, democracy has spread widely, and the incidence of war—even with Syria, South Sudan, and Ukraine—has fallen by half.

The changes over the last two decades are unprecedented, as I describe in a new book, The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World. They go way beyond China and have reached hundreds of millions of people in dozens of countries around the world. To see the breadth of the changes, consider three examples. First, most people working in development know that the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by more than half since the early 1990s. But few are aware that these declines are underway in more than 60 countries in nearly every corner of the world. For the first time in history, there are now more people in the world living on $5 a day (in 2005 constant PPP prices) than there are living on less than $1.25 a day. Second, more than 70 developing countries have achieved at least moderately fast GDP growth since the mid-1990s (exceeding 2 percent per capita per year), compared to just 21 countries that did so in the previous two decades. Third, perhaps most striking of all, since 1980, the rate of child death has declined in every single country in the world where data are available. There are no exceptions.

Even better, the majority of the rapidly-progressing countries are democracies, not dictatorships. The number of developing country democracies has tripled since the 1980s, including big countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, alongside dozens of smaller ones, such as Mongolia, Ghana, Senegal, and El Salvador. It is true that some democracies have slid backwards, such as Venezuela, Thailand, and Russia, but far more developing countries have stuck with democracy rather than reversed course. Just in the past year, Nigeria held its most successful elections ever, Tunisia consolidated its shift to democracy, and Myanmar surprised the world with peaceful elections and (hopefully) a shift to civilian power. Last year in Indonesia, a former furniture maker implausibly bested Suharto’s former son-in-law in elections that further deepened democratic institutions in the world’s largest Muslim country, an outcome that did not seem remotely possible when I lived in Jakarta in the early 1990s.

To be sure, the surge of progress has not reached everyone. A billion people still live in extreme poverty, 6 million children still die every year of preventable diseases, and hundreds of millions of people still cannot exercise basic freedoms. It’s not enough. But never before has there been so much progress for so many people in so many poor countries. 

No time for complacency

Nevertheless, these gains are at risk from several growing threats. Global growth is slowing, driven by economic malaise in Europe and Japan, slower growth in China and Brazil, and the end of the commodity super-cycle. The global population is likely to expand to 9 billion people by 2050 and more than 10 billion by the end of the century, with even faster growth in the demand for food, energy, and water. Conflict is on the rise again, and seems much harder to contain as it emanates from non-state actors. And climate change represents perhaps the biggest single threat to development, as some of the world’s most fragile countries are likely to bear the brunt of the damage.

Major threats to human progress are hardly new. As I think back over the last several decades, I am struck by how, every few years, it seemed that progress was sure to end because of a new threat, and instead progress continued. In the 1960s, many writers predicted widespread famine in Asia, and instead we got the Green Revolution and unprecedented growth in food production. When the Cold War ended, journalist Robert Kaplan wrote famously about 
The Coming Anarchy: How Scarcity, Crime, Overpopulation, Tribalism, and Disease are Rapidly Destroying the Social Fabric of our Planet
, just as most of the world was embarking on a turn in exactly the opposite direction. When the Asian financial crisis struck in 1997, a chorus of analysts claimed that the Asian miracle was surely over, but instead a few years later all of the countries were again advancing quickly. The global food crisis of 2007 was supposed to throw 100 million people back into poverty, but instead the numbers continued to fall. And the 2008 financial crisis was certain to undermine development progress for years to come, just as the 1980s global crises had done. But developing countries rebounded faster than rich countries, and progress in growth, poverty reduction, health, and education resumed nearly unabated.

Don’t get me wrong. The threats to continued progress are real. Just because developing countries have overcome big obstacles during the past two decades does not mean they will do so in the future. But at the same time, it is too easy to be pessimistic, and to conclude that the barriers to continued progress are just too great. We constantly underestimate the world’s growing abilities to work cooperatively, meet new challenges, and expand global prosperity and basic freedoms. While we can picture many of the future difficulties facing developing countries, it is much harder for us to envision the new ideas, innovations, technologies, governance structures, and leadership that will emerge to tackle them. 

The need for continued US leadership

The ideas and innovations needed to sustain progress will not happen automatically. They will depend on human choices, sacrifice, cooperation, leadership, and action. Most importantly, continued progress will depend primarily on the decisions and actions of developing countries themselves, as has been the case with the progress achieved during the last two decades. But it will also depend on the actions of rich countries, especially the United States. Supporting continued development progress is decidedly in our own interests: it helps build strong partners with whom we can work to solve pressing global challenges, such as terrorism, pandemic disease, conflict, and climate change. In today’s interconnected world the reality is clear: we simply cannot continue to advance our own interests without building strong allies and friends who will work with us towards a shared vision for the world. 

And so for our own interests, as well as for the interests of the global poor, the U.S. must substantially ramp up and strengthen its economic, social, and political efforts to support continued development progress. We must more vigorously stand with democracies and with civil society groups pushing for greater accountability, more effective institutions, and better governance, even when it is inconvenient for us to do so. We must aggressively invest in new technologies in health, agriculture, water, and energy. We must both enlarge and transform our foreign aid programs to build infrastructure, strengthen health and education systems, and more creatively encourage private sector investment. The approaches and techniques that have led to success in many aid programs in the past will not work as well in the future. We must adapt much more aggressively to the changing realities of working with more capable and better governed countries, while at the same time working in several dozen failed and failing states. And the United States must lead the way in revitalizing and modernizing the international institutional structure that has undergirded global progress since the end of World War II, including the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, and global trade agreements. We must work to increase the influence and voting power of developing counties in these organizations, and orient them to more effectively address issues of great importance to developing countries, or risk those organizations losing all legitimacy and effectiveness. 

Twenty years ago, developing countries around the world started a quiet but powerful transformation. The opportunity is within grasp for this progress to continue over the next two decades to create the greatest era of progress for the world’s poor in human history. Doing so will not be easy, just as it has not been in the past, and it will take courage, sacrifice, and strong leadership. But the potential gains are huge. The result—for both rich and poor countries—will be a better, safer world.