Monthly Archives: January 2016

Book Review: The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World — Steven Radelet

It’s both pleasant and unusual to find a book that is at its core optimistic:

I believe that during the next twenty years, the great surge of development progress can continue. If it does, 700 million more people will be lifted out of extreme poverty, incomes in developing countries will more than double again, childhood death will continue to decline, hundreds of millions of children will get the education they deserve, and basic rights and democratic freedoms will spread further around the world.

In The Great Surge Radelet enumerates the numerous good reasons why he believes what he believes. You—the readers of this blog—may be a part of this story. Some of you may play small parts and some of you may play large parts. But forward motion depends on what you (and I) do: “While I believe this progress can occur, I am far from certain that it will. Achieving it will depend on human choices and actions in rich, middle-income, and poor countries alike.” The Great Surge is outside the typical Grant Writing Confidential reader’s domain: Most of us work in or with domestic nonprofits. Yet the story is fascinating and many of the principles described in The Great Surge apply to nonprofits of all types.

It is easy to experience myopia and to think that collective efforts aren’t working. Yet Radelet reminds us that

A major transformation is underway—and has been for two decades now—in the majority of the world’s poorest countries, largely unnoticed by much of the world. Since the early 1990s, 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty.

Consider this post notice of the “largely unnoticed” news. It probably won’t go viral because it doesn’t describe war, famine, atrocities, injustice, celebrity gossip, or celebrity sexting scandals. But progress itself matters, even if it goes unheralded. In The Great Surge Radelet describes how “poverty, income, health and education, and democracy and government” have all been largely improved through a combination of better government policies, the fall of communism, technology, and, crucially, nonprofit work. Those factors must work together. Smart nonprofits have of course realized this and are attempting to make them work together.

Radelet also reminds us of how storytelling applies to how people perceive the world:

When I lived in Indonesia in the early 1990s, I arrived with a somewhat romanticized view of the beauty of the people working in rice paddies, together with reservations about the rapidly growing factory jobs. The longer I was there, the more I realized how incredibly difficult it is to work in the rice fields. It’s a backbreaking grind [. . .] So, it was not too much of a surprise that when factory jobs opened offering wages of $2 a day, hundreds of people lined up just to get a shot at applying.

Part of the grant writer’s job involves explaining things that may not be obvious to funders. Some of grant writing’s challenge involves knowing when to think inside the box and knowing when to break someone else’s “romanticized view.” Radelet got his view broken first-hand. You may not have that luxury.

One hilarious section occurs in Radelet’s review of the history of people predicting eminent population / resource disaster, which starts with Malthus and runs into the 1980s. It took economist Julian Simon and his book The Ultimate Resource to refute “those who believed that the world faced imminent disaster from population pressure and resource constraints.”

The people who tend to write about such things also usually forget that innovation tends to expand the resource pie, allow us to do more with less, and make products and services more efficient. That process depends on educated individuals interacting in dense networks that allow people to learn from each other and come up with new ideas. This process isn’t solely related to fields like battery chemistry.

I’ve read many pieces about the futility of foreign aid that ends up with NGOs (non-governmental organizations, the term used for non-US nonprofits), and, sometimes, grants for domestic nonprofits). Radelet, however, points out that “Despite the shortcomings, the bulk of the evidence shows that, overall, aid has helped support development progress.” That’s particularly true in global health. But change comes slowly—so slowly that it may feel imperceptible to those on the ground. For many of us working in many domains, the myth of Sisyphus resonates because the effort put forth feels gigantic relative to the benefits.

I’m familiar with being a foot soldier—at least with respect to grant writing and education—who affects only a tiny portion of these fields. Many of you reading this are likely to be foot soldiers too. If any presidents or senators are reading this, let me say hi and suggest that you give us a call. I know what being a foot soldier in education is like because I teach college English and technical writing; consequently, I see what colleges and universities (or “IHEs” in edu-speak) look like from the bottom.

When we work for IHEs, writing TRIO, HSI, Title III, Strengthening Working Families Initiative (SWFI), or other grants, I get to see what colleges look like from the top. I register the feelings of administrators and the needs of anonymous people who’re charged with overseeing the lives of thousands of students. I know that, from both perspectives, progress can feel incidental or impossible. Some days it feels like things are sliding backwards. But things only move forward slowly, one decision at a time, and through an incalculably large amount of human effort. Radelet is reminding us to not stop believing. Don’t lose sight of larger goals and larger progress. Don’t stop believing.


Chris Blattman gave us the original pointer to the book.

Links: Housing politics, bikes, murder, Vanhawks Valour Smartbikes, teen birthrates, high school graduation rates, marriage patterns, love, and more!

* “Home is where the cartel is,” on the politics of housing, inequality, and many other topics of interest; perhaps I’ve been doing it all wrong for quite some time. This is likely the most important thing you can read and understand today if you’re working on income, poverty, job training, or education, all of which are tremendously affected by land-use issues. Yet this problem is largely under the radar of nonprofits, public agencies, and policy makers. It shouldn’t be.

* “The Financial Benefits of Buying What You Love,” a perhaps underrated point, but how often do you know what you’ll really love before you buy it?

* Afghanistan: ‘A Shocking Indictment’. It’s worse than you think.

* “Steve Radelet has a new book, The Great Surge, about why so many countries have risen out of poverty in the past half century. There are many good things about it, but most of all, it’s the best introduction to development I’ve seen for a lay audience, including students.” Expect a review shortly.

* A video review of the Vanhawks Valour smartbike.

* Teen birthrates drop precipitously. Finally: Some good news!

* “The Marriages of Power Couples Reinforce Income Inequality,” which is, along with land-use controls, an incredibly underreported part of contemporary society and income distribution. Incidentally I contribute to the the power-couple problem while am part of the solution to the land-use-control problem.

* As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short. Let’s see… grad rates go up but grads can’t read or do math. Hmmm. Wonder what that means? Paging Bryan Caplan. See also “Almost No One Knows What Education Really Means, and Implications for the Department of Education’s Talent Search Program.”

* Why ‘I Have Nothing to Hide’ Is the Wrong Way to Think About Surveillance.” Are you there to serve the individuals in government, or is government there to serve you?

* What’s happening in coffee, a fascinating and usually detailed three-part post.

* Why bother drug testing workers when doing so accomplishes nothing?

* “Being a cop showed me just how racist and violent the police are.”

* The refragmentation, by Paul Graham, and by definition any essay he writes is worth reading.

* “Why Some of the Worst Attacks on Social Science Have Come From Liberals.”

* “East Germany thrived on snitching lovers, fickle friends and envious schoolkids.” Read properly, this is also a plea for privacy in the information age.

* Unions may no longer be able to forcibly raid their members’ pockets, though the framing in the article itself is quite different.

Almost no one knows what education really means and the TRIO Talent Search program

In “As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short,” Motoko Rich says that “the number of students earning high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower.” It’s a fascinating story and an older one than Rich lets on: In November 1991, before we had Facebook to distract us and the Internet as a scapegoat, Daniel J. Singal wrote about “The Other Crisis in American Education.” In that crisis, we learn of “the potentially high achievers whose SAT scores have fallen, and who read less, understand less of what they read, and know less than the top students of a generation ago.” Is that true? It’s hard to say. Many of 1991’s students are now tech visionaries and writers and parents themselves. I haven’t seen strong evidence that today’s 45 year olds are substantially dumber than 1991’s, or 1971’s.

What we can say definitively, however, is that schooling consists of at least two parts. Part of schooling is widely and conventionally discussed: It imparts real skills that students eventually need to lead productive and satisfied lives. The other part is less often discussed: Schooling functions as a signal of intrinsic conscientiousness, intelligence, conformity, and so forth. Bryan Caplan is writing a book called The Case Against Education about how the signaling model either dominates in education or has come to dominate in education.* The signaling model can explain Rich’s article because schools find teaching reading, writing, math, epistemology, and motivation much, much harder than they find giving people degrees.

Real education is also quite hard to impart because students resist it. I know because I’ve been teaching college-level writing for eight years. I’ve read a quote attributed to various writers that goes, “When a writer asks for feedback, what he really wants to be told is, ‘It’s perfect. Don’t change a word.'” That of course is rarely how writing works. When students show up to class, they by and large want to be told, “You’re perfect as you are. Don’t change a thing.” That is rarely true, but showing it to be true in a way that builds skill and that might be accepted is hard.

Giving people degrees, on the other hand, is easy.

This topic is particularly germane because the Department of Education (ED) just released a new Talent Search RFP. We’ve written about Talent Search before, in posts like “Sign Me Up for Wraparound Supportive Services, But First Tell Me What Those Are.” The goal of Talent Search, and other Department of Education TRIO programs, is to get low-income and first-generation college students to attend and ultimately graduate from four-year institutions of higher educations (IHEs, which is ED-speak for a college or university that confers four-year degrees).

But it’s increasingly unclear that “college” automatically adds a huge amount to earnings. America has a rapidly growing number of waiters, Uber/Lyft drivers, bartenders, baristas, barbers, and other service-sector workers who have college degrees employed in jobs that don’t require a degree. One widely noted report from the the Center for College Affordability and Productivity found that “About 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests requires less than a four-year college education.” That is … distressing. Or depressing. Whatever it means to you, it is definitely true that a large cohort of college grads spend years doing things that may be fun but aren’t all that remunerative, often accumulating huge debts along the way.

The ED remains somewhat behind the education research frontier. At the ED, college degrees continue to inspire near-religious devotion. We don’t suggest that you tell the ED in your Talent Search proposal that college degrees aren’t magical. As a grant applicant, you may want to cite the research above, but only to explain how your proposed Talent Search program is so sophisticated that you’re aware of the research showing that “college” is a grab-bag of all kind of things, many of which are either signals or which don’t pay off for degree holders. Can a random Talent Search program overcome the problems of correlation and causation implied by the ideas I’ve cited above? I doubt it. But there’s no reason you can’t say you can. There is a time and a place to discuss real education and the real world. Your Talent Search application isn’t it.


* Watch this space for a review when it does appear.