Mark Wentling reviews THE GREAT SURGE by Steve Radeltt (Western Samoa)

The current July-August edition of the Foreign Service Journal carries a review written by Mark Wentling (Honduras 1967–69, Togo 1970–73; PC Staff/Togo, Gabon, Niger 1973–77) of The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World by Steven Radelet (Western Samoa 1981-83).

The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World 

Steve Radelet

Steve Radelet

Reviewed by Mark Wentling (Honduras 1967-69 & Togo 1970-73)

 “Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Radelet’s ‘surge’ viewed from an African angle.”

I applaud Radelet for this fascinating book. I’m enriched by all the information marshalled to support his argument that the number of poor people in the world today is less than at any previous time in history. He quotes all pertinent sources; almost every sentence cites a key statistic or reference. His book is so chock full of facts and citations it’s a relief to read a sentence that puts a human face on the poor.

great-surgeI agree that poverty has generally been reduced in developing countries. But, I fear that most African countries are being left behind as the gap between them and richer countries widens and the absolute number of people stuck in poverty remains stubbornly high. I hope Africa is not an exception to the amazing ‘surge’ Radelet describes, but much remains to be done before Africa’s poor join the higher income ranks. I note that 45 of the 109 countries cited are in Africa.

I do not have access to Radelet’s plethora of resources. My case is simply based on my firsthand observations during over 40 years of doing development and humanitarian assistance work all over Africa. And, my focus is on rural Africa where 80% of Africans reside. When I compare the quality of life of today with what I recall from when I lived in a village in the early 1970s, I arrive at different conclusions. Sadly, I see most rural Africans as being worse off than their parents. Sure, they are living longer and they have clinics, schools and roads where there were none before, but they are struggling to survive. True, many Africans were so far down 30 years ago that they could go only statistically up.

They complain about many things. A big complaint is there are no jobs. They also complain about declining security. Many say life is too expensive and they have too many mouths to feed. Rising prices for basic essentials and reduced purchasing power stresses them. They do benefit from new technologies like cellphones and solar panels. Many are also more mobile because they possess motorbikes. But, these technologies have not made a dent in satisfying their basic needs. You still see too many people, particularly women, struggling to haul water and collect firewood.

The percentage of African children who are permanently stunted has remained woefully high for decades and there are now three times as many children than in 1970. Africa’s fast growing and youthful population are critical factors. Perhaps Africa’s central development challenge is its enduring high fertility rates. Also, of concern is the large gender gap. As long as African women can’t get ahead, Africa can’t get ahead.

Among Africa’s most formidable development challenges is the management of its agricultural, forest and pasture lands. Deforestation and land degradation are widespread. Average crop yields in Africa are well below those in the rest of the world. Top soil is vanishing. Ground water levels are dropping. It is difficult to build a rising standard of living when soil fertility levels are falling.

Climate change adds to Africa’s challenges. The high disease burden persists. While the fight to rollback malaria has had some success, it is still the biggest killer of children. A massive effort has brought HIV/AIDS under control, but its impact remains heavy. And, as Radelet notes, progress was set back in three African countries affected by Ebola. It is tough to improve health standards as long as water and sanitation is in such a deplorable state. And, most Africans continue to dream about having electricity.

Africa needs to run quickly ahead to stay in the same place, and to run twice as fast to keep up with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, many African countries could not move ahead because of natural and man-made calamities, incompetent leaders and managers, poor governance, weak or non-existent institutions, and excessive corruption.

New scourges add to Africa’s problems: terrorists; drug trade; out-migration; rising numbers of refugees and displaced people. Yet, after spending 40 years on the continent, I’m still searching for the lasting ‘answers’ to Africa’s long-standing development problems.

Many African countries are now reeling from: China’s economic slowdown; depreciating currencies; a slump in key export commodity prices; rising inflation and debt levels; and, the worst drought in decades. I wonder if Radelet were to re-visit the African countries he wrote about in his 2010 book, Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way, if he would have the same optimistic conclusions. In 2022, when Africa is projected to have more people than China or India, I hope he can report that most Africans are enjoying the ‘surge’ he describes.

•  •  

Following Peace Corps tours in Honduras  (1967–69) and Agu, Togo (1970–73), reviewer Mark Wentling then went to work with the Peace Corps as an Associate Director in Togo (1974–75) and as a Country Director in Gabon (1975–76) and Niger (1976–77). He then had a long successful career with USAID, rising through the ranks to serve as country director in Guinea, Togo-Benin, Angola, Somalia and Tanzania. He later worked for CARE in Niger and Mozambique (1999–2003) and for World Vision (2003–06) in a regional Africa position based in Maputo. In his last African assignment, he worked as Country Director for Plan International in Burkina Faso (2011–15). Today he works as a Senior Consultant to Breedlove Foods in Lubbock, Texas. This coming year he will also be teaching a course in international development at Texas Tech.

Mark is also a novelist. Since 2013 he has published a trilogy: Africa’s Embrace, Africa’s Release: The Journey Continues and Africa’s Heart: The Journey Ends in Kansas. His new book, his fourth, is entitled Dead Cow Road.

Author Steven Radelet is Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Development, and is Director of the Global Human Development Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, and holds the Donald F. McHenry Chair in Global Human Development. He serves as an economic adviser to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is married to Carrie Hessler Radelet, Peace Corps Director. They were a married couple as PCVs in Western Samoa.

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