Interview: Steve Radelet on the biggest success stories you’ve never heard of

Interview: Steve Radelet on the biggest success stories you’ve never heard of


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This post is part of ONE’s “Reporter Perspectives: Covering Africa” blog series.

Steve Radelet speaking at TEDxGeorgetown. Photos credit: Leslie E. Kossoff/Georgetown University

Steve Radelet speaks at TEDxGeorgetown. Photo credit: Leslie E. Kossoff/Georgetown University

Never before have so many people, in so many developing countries, made such progress. The problem is, nobody seems to know about it.

This is the story Steve Radelet aims to tell in his new book, released today— The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World. It celebrates some of the world’s biggest successes: from reduced poverty and violence to more girls in school and more vaccines.

Radelet is a distinguished professor at Georgetown University and an economic advisor to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. He’s been working in international development for decades—including a previous role as Chief Economist at USAID—and focuses on economic growth and foreign aid in developing countries.

Radelet sat down with ONE last week to give us a sneak peek at his new book:

In a nutshell, why should ONE members read your book?

Radelet's latest book.

Radelet’s latest book.

I’m sure that ONE members are often met with skepticism by people who think that nothing ever works in development and that developing countries are stuck in incredibly poverty from which there is no hope—and that’s wrong.

Over the last 25 years we’ve seen [over] a billion people lifted out of poverty. We’ve seen infant mortality rates fall, with millions and millions more children living every year; and we’ve seen tens of millions more girls get into school. There are more democracies, and fewer wars.

It isn’t everybody in every country—but overall we have seen more progress than ever before, and most people are unaware of it. And that’s at the heart of what ONE stands for, and what ONE has been a part of helping to achieve.

If you had to pick just one, what do you think is the most compelling success story from your book?

 The one that jumps to mind is vaccines and immunizations for children. It’s been supported by a global network—organizations, governments, local heroes, mothers, companies—and it gets vaccines to a village in northern Myanmar where a kid can get vaccinated and live a much healthier life. The percentage of children that die before their 5th birthday has dropped from [around] 22% in 1960 to less than 5% today. That’s still too high, but it’s a remarkable achievement—one of the greatest achievements in human history, period. It’s a compelling example of a lot of different pieces coming together.

Clearly a lot of progress has taken place, but it doesn’t seem like the average person on the street knows about it. Why do you think that is, and what can we do to change the narrative?

A survey was done of Americans a couple of years ago, asking what people thought had happened to the share of people living in extreme poverty over the last two decades. About 66% of people thought that share had doubled since 1990 and 29% said it had remained the same—that’s 95% of Americans who are completely wrong. And only about 5% took the correct answer, which is that the share of people living in extreme poverty had fallen by half. It’s absolutely stunning—this is one of the greatest achievements in world history, but nobody even knows.  It’s really quite distressing.

So, why is this? I think it’s partly because humans are attracted to bad news. People blame journalists, and maybe it is partly the media’s sensationalism, but that’s what people read. I’ve talked to Nicholas Kristof about this, and he’ll say that when he writes a negative story about what’s not working it gets a much bigger response than when he writes a positive story. People are, for whatever reason, attracted to stories about failure or tragedy.

Also, many progress and success stories are unfolding over decades—it’s not overnight. And we’re captured by what happened overnight—the latest war that erupted or the latest plane crash—whereas this is a story that is unfolding very slowly…making it harder to capture people’s imaginations.

There’s no silver bullet answer to this, other than continuing to get the story out there.

In your book, you credit inspiring leaders in developing countries—like Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu—for some of the progress that’s been made. Who would you cite as new, emerging leaders that can fill those shoes?

Inspiring leaders like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nelson Mandela and others are really critical at turning points, but what’s important is that they set up institutions that can last way beyond them. A great leader will shift the focus from themselves toward building an institution that can last over time.

You’ve written about the importance of investments in technology—like cell phones, electricity and internet—but there is sometimes a perception that these things are luxuries. What role do they play in ending poverty?

Electricity is this enormous technological advancement that hundreds of millions of people don’t have access to more than 100 years after it was invented! If people have access to paved roads, reliable electricity, and information technology like cell phones, they can thrive. They can create better economic opportunities for themselves.

Cell phones can be used for downloading medical records; they can help people learn to read and allow rural farmers to find out what the market prices are for their crops, and when and where to sell them. The internet helps people use and get better information. Information is not a luxury—it’s at the core of bringing people together and creating new opportunities.

Your work has led you to travel to a lot of different countries—what place surprised you the most?

I’d say Liberia, where I have been working steadily since 2005 when President Sirleaf was elected. I knew that she was a great leader, but everything I had seen and heard about Liberia for the previous 20 years was a disaster—all war lords and a society that had completely fallen apart.

When I got to Liberia it was immediately apparent—within hours—that there was this dynamism, this strength of character of people who had been through unbelievable problems that had been imposed by a small minority of people. It really reminded me of how a small amount of people can really do a lot of damage, because the vast majority of Liberians wanted to fight against that, build their society back and create opportunities for themselves and for their children.

Thanks again to Steve Radelet for taking the time to talk to ONE. If you’re interested in reading his book, The Great Surge, you can purchase it here.

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