Global poverty has fallen faster during the past 20 years than at any time in history. Around the world hunger, child death, and disease rates have all plummeted. More girls are getting into school. In fact, never before have so many people, in so many poor countries, made so much progress in reducing poverty, increasing incomes, improving health, reducing conflict and war, and spreading democracy.
Some of these gains – especially the declines in poverty and child mortality – rank among the greatest achievements in history. Yet few people are aware that they are even happening. Most people believe that, apart from a few special cases such as China and India, developing countries by and large remain hopelessly mired in poverty, stagnation, and dictatorship. Yet the reality is quite different: A major transformation is quietly under way, affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people in nearly every corner of the world.
What sparked these changes? […] First, the end of the cold war, the demise of communism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union dramatically improved the global environment for sustained and peaceful development. The United States and the Soviet Union stopped propping up some of the world’s nastiest dictators. Proxy wars and political violence associated with the cold war came to an end in Central America, Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, and elsewhere. Countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia gained their freedom. Perhaps most powerfully, economic and political ideologies shifted substantially. Communism and strong state control lost credibility. A new consensus began to form around more market-based economic systems and – at least in many countries – more accountable and democratic governance, along with greater respect for basic freedoms and rights. Developing countries around the world introduced major economic and political reforms and began to build institutions more conducive to growth and social progress.
Second, globalization and international access to new technologies brought more trade and finance and a far greater exchange of ideas and information. Exports from developing countries are five times as large today as they were just 20 years ago, and financial flows are 12 times as large, creating many more economic opportunities. With deeper global integration came technologies that spurred progress: vaccines, medicines, new seed varieties, mobile phones, the Internet, and faster and cheaper air travel. To be sure, globalization has brought challenges, risks, and volatility, not least the 2007 food and 2008 financial crises. [These in fact were caused by government policy.–Ed.] But it has also brought investment, jobs, ideas, and markets, all of which stimulated progress.
Third, while global changes mattered, the countries that began to move forward did so primarily because of strong leadership and courageous actions by the people in those countries themselves. Where new leaders at all levels of society stepped forward to forge change, progress ensued; where old dictators stayed in place, or new tyrants stepped in to replace the old, political and economic systems remained rigged. ….