Lessons from an age of progress

WASHINGTON, DC – Imagine that you are a committed internationalist during a tumultuous period in global politics, and you are now grappling with the outcome of a nail-bitingly close US presidential election. The winner is a Republican who ran partly on a message of foreign-policy retrenchment, against a Democrat who represented continuity with the outgoing administration.

Now imagine that the incoming administration collaborates with other countries to help save 25 million lives over the next 15 years. Until this last part, the scenario probably felt all too current for many readers, a large number of whom are still adjusting to the reality of Donald Trump’s presidency. But this is also how many people felt back in 2001, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore, following an extraordinary Supreme Court decision that ended the vote recount in Florida.

There are certainly limits to any comparison between then and now; but it is worth noting that much of the world seemed mired in chaos in the early 2000s, too. Many regions were beset by economic crisis, and political protests met world leaders whenever they gathered. The United States government’s policy toward the Middle East was squarely at odds with that of the United Nations, and violent extremism was on the rise.

It was against this backdrop that roughly 25 million lives – mostly children under age five and people infected with HIV/AIDS – were saved, owing to accelerated progress in global development from around 2001, early in the Bush administration, to 2015, near the end of Barack Obama’s second term.

My Brookings Institution colleague Krista Rasmussen and I recently published a study that assesses the changing pace of progress during the era of the Millennium Development Goals, which world leaders established in 2000 to tackle by 2015 the most severe problems associated with global poverty. We found that roughly two-thirds of the lives saved during this period were in Africa, while around one-fifth were in China and India, and the remainder were spread around the rest of the developing world.

Progress accelerated in other areas as well. Since 2000, at least 59 million more children have completed primary school than would have if 1990s trends had continued; and more than 470 million additional people were lifted out of extreme poverty than would have been if the pace of improvement from 1990 to 2002 had continued.

Unfortunately, we found that progress toward other goals has been less impressive. While the world made major gains in tackling hunger and expanding access to drinking water, it did not significantly improve upon what could have been expected relative to 1990s trends. And with respect to sanitation – namely, having access to a toilet – the already slow rate of progress has not accelerated.

These results point to three key lessons for navigating today’s uncertain geopolitical waters. First, the past need not be prologue: breakthroughs are always possible, even when they are unexpected. In the early 2000s, prospects for improved international cooperation were bleak. In December 1999, mass protests now known as the “Battle in Seattle” prevented a World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference from finishing its proceedings. And in July 2001, a protester was shot dead amid riots outside the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy. But better angels prevailed, and the world came together to take action on life-or-death global health issues.

Second, breakthroughs are typically driven by pragmatic technical efforts to disrupt the status quo. For example, rapid progress on global health emerged from scientific discoveries and large investments in innovative new institutions. These include the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (now known as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance); the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; and many public-private collaborations seeded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others.

Third, political leaders can play a pivotal role in pushing for new approaches and solutions to global problems. Who in early 2001 could have guessed that Bush – who would later lead the US into a devastating war in Iraq – would become a hero in the global fight against AIDS and malaria? The Bush administration ultimately allocated much more to foreign-aid budgets than Bill Clinton did during his two presidential terms.

These three lessons should be applied to the next frontier of global challenges. In 2015, all countries agreed to a new set of ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, to be achieved by 2030. The SDGs aim to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger, reduce inequalities within and between countries, and ensure a sustainable future for our planet. Many people consider these objectives to be too ambitious, given the daunting problems in the world today. But achieving these goals is essential for improving living standards everywhere.

Despite how disordered the world feels in 2017, the potential for renewed progress at any given moment is greater than most people think possible. Realizing this potential requires certain key ingredients, such as institutional and disruptive innovations in science and business. And it requires that politicians of all stripes do their part. When the right elements come together, the potential for human achievement is enormous. That is why it is reasonable to hope that the next round of victories in global development will turn out to be even more impressive than the last.

John W. McArthur is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Copyright: Project Syndicate.