The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World
by Steven Radelet (Samoa 1981–83)
by Mark Wentling, December 15, 2015
“Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Radelet’s ‘surge’ viewed from an African angle.”
I enjoyed reading Dr. Radelet’s new book, The Great Surge. I applaud the efforts he and his team deployed to produce such an acclaimed book. I’m dazzled and enriched by all the information contained in this book to support his convincing argument that the number of poor people in the world today is less than at any previous time in history. It is difficult to review a book that quotes all pertinent sources and leaves no stone unturned. It appears that he has contacted everyone of any importance in academia about this critically important subject. Almost every sentence cites a key statistic or reference. His book is so chock full of facts and citations it is almost a relief to read a sentence without a statistic that puts more of a human face on the former and current poor.
I can’t argue with Radelet. I agree with his well-documented and -researched optimistic findings. Yes, developing countries have made great strides in reducing poverty over the past several decades. But, I fear that most African countries are being left behind as the gap between them and higher income countries widens and the absolute numbers of people stuck in absolute poverty, the hungry and poorly nourished, remain stubbornly higher than in all previous years. I am hoping that Africa is not an exception to the amazing ‘surge’ Radelet describes in detail, but much remains to be done to pave the way for most of Africa’ s poor to join the higher income classes.
Forty-five of the 109 countries covered in this impressive book are in Africa. Therefore, only nine of the smaller African countries are not included. I’m not in a good position to take issue with Radelet’s key points. I neither have access to all the references and statistics he cites, nor the support of a battery of scholars, assistants and fact-checkers that Radelet was able to call upon to write his informative book. My case is simply based on my firsthand observations acquired during over 40 years of doing development and humanitarian assistance work in all corners of Africa.
My experiences as a development field practitioner in Africa since 1970 oblige me to be more realistic. I regret that this obligation makes me less optimistic than Radelet when it comes to evaluating progress in Africa. My approach is based on the hundreds of talks I’ve had over the past several decades with rural African families. It is a challenge to reduce to a few words what I’ve been told and seen over the years in rural communities. While I recognize that rapid urbanization in Africa is creating serious problems, my focus is on rural Africa where about 80% of Africans still live.
When I visit rural African villages and try to compare the quality of life with what I recall from when I lived in a village in Togo for three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 1970s, I can easily come to different conclusions than Radelet. I might even go as far as to say that in many ways today’s rural Africans are worse off than their parents were 30 years ago. Sure, they are living longer and they have clinics, schools and roads where there were none before, but they are struggling to survive and less happy than their parents were. They complain about many things. For example, they complain that the clinics are poorly equipped and charge fees they can’t afford, and the school classrooms are overcrowded and the quality of education is lower. A big complaint is that even if they finish school they cannot find a job or something profitable to do. True, many Africans were so far down 30 years ago that the only place for them to go statistically was up.
There is not enough space here to list all their legitimate grievances, but most of all they say life has become too expensive and they have too many mouths to feed. Rising prices for the essentials they need and a reduction in purchasing power causes them greater stress than known by previous generations. Certainly, psychological, cultural and generational shifts are at play. In some cases, 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 any real dent in satisfying their basic needs. When you look around the villages you still see people, particularly women, struggling to find and haul potable water, process and prepare food to eat, as well as collecting the ever scarcer firewood needed for cooking. Maybe you also see more tin roofs today than in past years, but that does little to secure livelihoods and achieve lasting prosperity. Yes, they also complain about declining security and too little law and order.
One of the most discouraging facets of life in Africa is the high percentage of the children who are permanently stunted. This percentage has persisted for decades and there are now three times or more children than when I first I arrived on the continent. Africa’s fast growing and youthful population, and its failure to achieve a demographic transition are critical factors. Perhaps Africa’s central development challenge is its enduring high fertility rates. Meeting this challenge will require investing billions of dollars in the provision and distribution of modern contraceptives. Related to this factor is the continued large gender gap. As long as African women can’t get ahead, Africa can’t get ahead. Are women the last to benefit from the ‘surge?’
Among Africa’s most formidable development challenges is the management of its agricultural, forest and grazing lands. My observations tell me that land degradation and deforestation are widespread and, consequently, the productivity of this land is in a constant decline. Average crop yields in Africa are notoriously well below those registered in the rest of the world. Soil fertility levels are falling. 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. Farm sizes are getting smaller. Land tenure laws are practically non-existent. Rapid population growth is producing a new landless class of people. Many former rural inhabitants are joining the swollen throngs of poor people already living in over-congested cities that are unable to provide them with basic services, including decent housing.
There are also valid concerns about whether or not Africa’s youth majority (50% are under the age of 19) will see the glass as half full or half empty, and if it is the latter, will that be a source of resentment and instability? It is still not certain how more wealth can be created in a number of African countries. Without this additional prosperity, it will be difficult to attenuate the fears that African youth have for their future. Large numbers of educated, unemployed but hopeless youth is a volatile mix that casts a dark cloud over Africa’s future.
In many areas of Africa, climate change is adding to the challenges of making African agriculture and livestock raising more productive. The disease burden also remains too high. While the fight to rollback malaria has had some successes, malaria still keeps too many Africans down for too long and remains the biggest killer of African children. A massive effort has brought HIV/AIDS under control, but in some countries the impact of this disease in terms of incapacitated people and orphans remains heavy. And, as Radelet notes, we have recently witnessed in three African countries how Ebola can set progress back. It will be difficult to raise the general health of the population as long as water and sanitation remains in such a deplorable state for most Africans. Correcting this problem alone would cost billions of dollars, as will providing the reliable and affordable electricity that most Africans only know in their dreams.
Africa has always needed to run quickly ahead to stay in the same place, and to run twice as fast or more to keep up with the rest of the world. Sadly, many African countries were impeded from moving ahead as fast as they needed because of natural and man-made calamities, incompetent leaders and managers, poor governance, weak or non-existent institutions, and excessive corruption. And, now they find themselves unable to compete in a highly competitive world and largely unattractive to the huge foreign investments needed to develop. Landlocked African countries and the artificial geographic borders inherited from colonial times (less 50 years ago) pose special challenges for some African countries. And, the smallest countries on the continent also are also faced with serious additional limitations on increasing their participation in the world’s economy.
In recent years, we have observed additional new scourges in Africa which have added to its development woes. Notably, we can add to the negative factors affecting Africa’s developmental progress the following: terrorist groups; drug trade; out-migration; rising numbers of refugees and displaced people; and, not to be overlooked, the proliferation of the water hyacinth which is clogging Africa’s lakes and rivers. I’m sure we have not yet learned of all the new factors affecting Africa’s development. Meanwhile, after over 40 years on the continent, I’m still searching for the lasting ‘answers’ to Africa’s known development problems.
This past year has been a particularly difficult one for many African countries as they have been deeply affected by: the economic slowdown in China; the fall in the value of their currencies and the prices of key export commodities; rising inflation and debt levels; and, the worst drought in decades. Rising inflation alone has forced millions of Africans below the poverty line. I wonder if Dr. 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. I have visited all of these countries and lived and worked in ten of them. Obviously, my observations of these countries and their future prospects are at odds with Radelet’s views. I do hope that future progress in Africa is not being derailed and Radelet will be able to report in 2022, when Africa will have more people than China or India, that most Africans will be enjoying the ‘surge’ he so well documents in his new book.
The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World
by Steven Radelet (Western Samoa 1981-83)
Simon & Schuster
$19.01 (hardcover), $12.37 (paperback), $14.99 (Kindle)
Following Peace Corps tours in Honduras (1967–69) and Agu, Togo (1970–73), 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.
He received a B.A. (Economics, Political Science and Anthropology) from Wichita State University (WSU) in 1970 and a M.S. (Tropical Agriculture) from Cornell University in 1983. He also received a M.A. (Strategic Studies) from the National War College in 1992. His languages are: French, Portuguese, Spanish, Ewe, Hausa and Kiswahili.
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.