51. NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA
For showing Africa how to break the resource curse.
Finance minister | Nigeria
As a candidate in this year’s unusually public race for the World Bank presidency, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala seemingly had it all: an MIT education, high-level experience with both the bank and the Nigerian government, the potential to be the first woman and first person of color to run the institution, and the support of everyone from the African Union to the Financial Times. She just didn’t have the one thing that really mattered: a U.S. passport.
But though she may have missed out on her chance to run the bank — American Jim Yong Kim got the post — Okonjo-Iweala is arguably as influential in her role as the powerful finance minister of Africa’s most populous country and one of its fastest-growing economies. In a previous stint in the position, she successfully negotiated to wipe out millions of dollars of international debt, and since reassuming the post last year she has cut spending and helped establish a sovereign wealth fund to manage Nigeria’s oil riches. Her driving idea: African countries can’t hope to develop economically until they get their institutions in order.
It hasn’t always been easy. Although she enjoys a potent mandate from President Goodluck Jonathan, Okonjo-Iweala has seen her reform efforts consistently meet opposition from the “godfathers” — the powerful officials who benefit from the oil wealth in Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt political system. Her efforts to end a popular but economically disastrous fuel subsidy have also so far been slow going. “It has not been easy, and the struggle is still ongoing,” she told Reuters this year. “You make progress; then you get courage to make more.” If she can succeed in helping one of Africa’s most pivotal countries overcome the infamous oil curse, it might have a much more lasting impact than anything she could have accomplished back in Washington.
52. MARTIN FELDSTEIN
For getting the eurocrisis right — two decades ago.
Economist | Cambridge, Mass.
You might call Martin Feldstein, a former head of the National Bureau of Economic Research and chairman of President Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, the original euroskeptic. “If a single currency is accepted,” the longtime Harvard University economist wrote back in 1992, “national governments might soon have to decide whether to accept the greater volatility of employment and incomes that comes from abandoning an independent monetary policy and flexible exchange rate, or accept instead the loss of national sovereignty over taxes and spending.” (Translation: The euro is doomed.) He doubled down on his argument five years later in Foreign Affairs, warning of the “danger of a treaty or constitution that has no exits” and the “adverse economic effects of a single currency on unemployment and inflation.”
With the seemingly successful introduction of the euro in 1999, Feldstein was in a distinct minority. He stuck to his guns, however, even suggesting in 2008 — a month before Slovakia joined the euro (ironically, to seek relief from the global financial panic) — that a eurozone breakup could be “a real possibility.” Now, amid the very real talk of just such a breakup, Feldstein has turned to critiquing European leaders’ responses to the meltdown. Some of his predictions — Greece defaulting and exiting the eurozone, for example — have yet to come true. Feldstein can point to his prescience, however, noting that his early warnings “were pretty much on target, even though they were written 20 years ago.”
53. MOHAMED EL-ERIAN
For charting the economy’s new new normal.
CEO, Pimco | Newport Beach, Calif.
The Great Recession is coming up roses for Mohamed El-Erian. The Egyptian-American investor has already emerged as one of the most important theorists of the economic downturn — positing a “new normal” of sluggish growth and lower returns — and is poised to take over the investment firm Pimco, making him what the New York Times called the bond markets’ “new leading man.”
El-Erian, who made his intellectual reputation by describing the destructive cycle between financial crises and political instability, had proclaimed that 2012 would be “Europe’s moment of truth.” Now the verdict is in, and El-Erian’s warnings about the collapse of the eurozone and global market contagion seem more Cassandra-like than ever. Europe, El-Erian said recently, is simply avoiding the tough decisions that will allow it to recover. “Greece is like the infection in your toe. If you don’t pay attention to it, it’s small, and then the next thing you know, it’s spread to your leg, and the next thing you know it’s affecting your vital organs,” he said. “You’ve got to deal with it. And Europe has not dealt with the problem of Greece.” Although El-Erian saw the current financial crisis coming before just about anyone, he lays the blame for this latest downturn squarely at the feet of politicians, whose endless bickering and buck-passing have become the dangerous “new new normal.” Now, when the markets come crashing down, he writes, Western leaders “won’t have anyone to blame but themselves.”
54. YU JIANRONG
For daring to be specific about how to change China.
Director, Center for the Study of Social Problems | China
China’s leaders often declare publicly that their country needs to “reform.” “Reform can only move forward,” Premier Wen Jiabao waxed after the country’s rubber-stamp legislature met in March. “It cannot stagnate. Even more so, it can’t move backward.” But China’s mandarins rarely elaborate on just what reform means, preferring instead to govern by cryptic slogans and vague pronouncements.
Not so Yu Jianrong, the rare Chinese academic who has taken up the challenge of defining how exactly China could change course — and from inside the system. In April, he released a succinct, two-phase plan he called a “10-Year Outline of China’s Social and Political Development.” Despite its bland title, Yu’s blueprint offers a timetable for Chinese reform that for once is as credible as it is ambitious. The plan puts dates and specifics to the task, advocating, for example, a stronger law on private property, the revealing of “information pertaining to government affairs” and “officials’ property,” and the abolition of “speech crimes,” after which China should “open up” the media and political parties. Yu’s short manifesto immediately caused a splash when he released it to his nearly 1.5 million followers on the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo (though the government has maintained a deafening silence). “We’ve already decided to change,” Yu explained in an interview. “The question is: In which direction do we change, and from where do we start?” Sweeping reform in this authoritarian land of 1.3 billion won’t be easy, but Yu’s plan is as good a place to begin as any. The era, he said, of crossing the river “by feeling the stones” is over.
55. MICHAEL SANDEL
For revealing the moral limits of markets.
Political philosopher | Cambridge, Mass.
Today, the old cliché that money can buy anything is more true than ever. The going rate for an Indian woman’s womb is about $8,000, the right to emit a metric ton of carbon dioxide costs $10.50, and for $15 to $20 an hour, a man will stand in line overnight for a lobbyist who wishes to attend a congressional hearing. On the one hand, it’s a testament to the power of the modern market, where efficiency rules and anything is open to free exchange. But should everything be for sale? That is the burning question posed by Harvard University professor Michael Sandel, who has emerged as the world’s foremost critic of the rush toward “commodification.”
The problem with putting a price on everything, Sandel argues in his new book, What Money Can’t Buy, is twofold. First, it exacerbates inequality: When more and more goods and services — including health care, education, and political access — can be bought and sold like gold or oil futures, the rich can accumulate them in greater amounts. Second, placing objects and ideas on the free market, Sandel argues, often degrades their social value. Think, for example, of the growing practice of paying students to read. In our quest to boost test scores, are we recasting learning as a chore rather than a joy?
At Harvard, Sandel teaches one of the university’s most popular courses — simply titled “Justice” — which in a single semester has drawn upwards of 800 students, to whom he poses vexing moral dilemmas. A runaway train is hurtling toward a fork in the track. On one side, Gandhi lies tied to the rails; on the other, two ordinary individuals. Should you save Gandhi or save the two others? What if 10 people were on the other side? Sandel has also become an international phenomenon and a pioneer in the democratization of a world-class education: His class is now an internationally syndicated television show, making him a minor rock star in China, Japan, and South Korea, where his open-ended teaching style and focus on big questions are far from the norm. The introductory lecture for “Justice” has tallied more than 4 million views on YouTube. Who knew a philosophy-minded professor’s tough questions about Bentham and Kant could compete with cat videos and “Gangnam Style”?
56. JOHN BRENNAN
For bringing the war on terror to the real enemy — al Qaeda.
White House counterterrorism advisor | Washington
John Brennan has been at war with al Qaeda longer than any other top U.S. official, and he has learned a trick or two along the way. The 25-year CIA veteran has gone from a supporter of “enhanced interrogation techniques” under George W. Bush to the architect of Barack Obama‘s counterterrorism strategy, emphasizing pinpoint strikes and commando raids over grandiose attempts to transform the cultures of distant lands. And he has reframed Bush’s expansive war on terror as a more focused mission to dismantle specific terrorist groups in places like Somalia and Yemen.
Brennan no longer operates only from the shadows. He has mounted a public defense of the White House’s reliance on drone strikes, which have emerged as Obama’s signature tool in hunting terrorists, as “legal, ethical, and wise,” in a bid to convince skeptics that the administration has wielded its extraordinary powers responsibly. And he has largely won the argument: More than 60 percent of Americans support drone strikes to target terrorists abroad.
Brennan, reportedly the last man in the room with Obama before the president decides to order a strike, doesn’t take these life-or-death decisions lightly. The man whom colleagues refer to as the “priest” of the counterterrorism effort has formulated a moral blueprint for when to call in the drones. “It is the option of last recourse,” he explained this year. Obama “wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: the infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”
57. JAMEEL JAFFER
For insisting that assassination is not an American value.
Director, ACLU Center for Democracy | New York
Barack Obama has turned drones into his signature counterterrorism tool, even personally selecting targets from a “kill list” as he has deployed this new sort of air force to rain death down on terrorists across two continents and bludgeon al Qaeda into submission. But far too much of the U.S. president‘s secret assassination program has been shielded from legal scrutiny — and Jameel Jaffer, an influential lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union specializing in national security issues, is working to change that.
“[T]he legal foundation of the targeted killing campaign is not simply shaky, but rotten,” Jaffer wrote this year. For the first time, he’s forcing the CIA to justify its veil of secrecy: In a landmark court case, he’s challenging its consistent refusal, over several years, to confirm or deny the drone program’s existence. Even as multiple U.S. officials — from Obama on down — have spoken publicly about the strikes, America’s top spies still refuse to say whether they have records about the drone program, let alone share them.
Jaffer, who played a central role in challenging the warrantless wiretapping program and use of torture under George W. Bush, isn’t giving Obama a pass either. “Remember outcry after Bush detained Americans as [enemy combatants]?” Jaffer recently tweeted. “Imagine the outcry if he’d proposed killing them (secretly!) instead.”
58. BJORN LOMBORG
For taking the black and white out of climate politics.
Director, Copenhagen Consensus Center | Czech Republic
The climate-change debate’s most consistent iconoclast continued to go after environmental sacred cows this year, dismissing the Rio+20 summit as a “wasted opportunity,” warning against “policy by panic” efforts to connect this summer’s droughts to global warming, and celebrating hydraulic fracturing as “this decade’s best green-energy option.”
But Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish political scientist often mislabeled a “climate skeptic,” is more than just a critic of environmentalism run amok. In a world of terrifyingly daunting problems and limited resources, Lomborg doesn’t say that global warming isn’t happening; he tries to urge leaders to think realistically about what to tackle first. For his innovative Copenhagen Consensus 2012 project, he convened a panel of more than 50 experts, including four Nobel-winning economists, and asked them how they would spend $75 billion — a 15 percent increase in global aid spending — to most efficiently bolster global welfare. The panel’s top recommendations were interventions to fight hunger and improve education, as well as increasing subsidies for malaria treatment and childhood immunizations. Research to “fight biodiversity destruction and lessen the effects of climate change”? That came in sixth.
59. HAMAD BIN KHALIFA AL THANI
For filling the leadership vacuum in the Middle East.
Emir | Qatar
If there’s one man who has stepped into the void in the Middle East, it’s Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the ruler of a tiny country that few had heard of. Some might say it’s his vast oil and natural gas wealth that has made the enigmatic emir a major player in conflict zones as varied as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — not to mention Palestine, where Qatar has largely usurped Egypt’s role as the principal mediator between the feuding factions of Hamas and Fatah.
But the Qatari emir, who has been called the “Arab Henry Kissinger,” is not just a sheikh with a big bank account. His ambition is nothing less than the remapping of power dynamics in the Arab world. Known for his grit and determination, which enabled him to turn the nearly bankrupt statelet he inherited in a bloodless 1995 coup into the planet’s richest country, the emir also knows how to play great powers off each other to get what he wants. Qatar is home to one of the largest U.S. air bases, but the canny emir maintains cordial relations with his neighbors in Tehran as well, never mind his misgivings. (In one leaked 2010 diplomatic cable, he told U.S. Sen. John Kerry that “based on 30 years of experience with the Iranians, they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100.”)
Magnifying Sheikh Hamad’s voice is Qatari media giant Al Jazeera, which became the “unquestioned home of the revolution” during the Arab Spring, as FP’s Marc Lynch put it. Not content simply to cheer the revolutionaries from the sidelines, the Qatari emir took the lead in mustering Arab League support for the NATO intervention that toppled Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, provided at least $400 million in aid for the rebels, and helped them establish training camps. He has also unveiled a mini-Marshall Plan for the post-Arab Spring world, pledging billions of dollars in aid and investment to Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Gaza. Now the loudest Arab voice calling for intervention in Syria, Sheikh Hamad, at September’s U.N. General Assembly meeting, urged Arab countries to “do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed in Syria.” Based on his track record, the rest of the world will get there — eventually.
60. HEW STRACHAN
For asking the generals, What are you doing with all those guns?
Military historian | Britain
Hew Strachan may be an expert on World War I, but the Oxford University professor isn’t stuck in the past. He has emerged as one of the world’s preeminent thinkers on the character of modern warfare at a time when governments are confronting a host of new realities, from drones to cyberattacks to asymmetrical warfare. And he has the ear of top U.S. military officials. Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, is one of many to call himself one of Strachan’s students.
Strachan would tell you that war hasn’t changed as much as we may think because states are still the primary actors in conflict. But, perhaps more than any other military scholar, he has pressed civilian leaders to think deeply about how they articulate strategy, while urging military leaders to wrestle with their role in implementing it. He argues that since the 1980s, the U.S. Army has had an ever freer hand in running America’s wars, while opting out all but entirely from the crucial policy debates on whether and in what way to use military force. Conflict, Strachan writes, became “a policy-free zone, in which military expertise was unfettered and where armies reasserted their authority over war’s conduct.” Unsurprisingly, he thinks this is what led to disastrously unsound strategy post-9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, like the dramatic 2010 firing of Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, which Strachan says stemmed from the general’s frustration over a lack of political guidance from the capital. And he has lacerated Barack Obama’s administration for sending mixed messages to Afghans and Americans alike, citing its failure to understand that in modern warfare, communications are strategy. Reflecting on the war on terror in late 2011, Strachan made an observation that could equally apply to many of today’s conflicts: “The paradox of having wars with big objectives, at least in declaratory terms, but only being ready to use limited means and limited levels of mobilization to fight them, puts you in a pretty confused place.”
61. HUSAIN HAQQANI, FARAHNAZ ISPAHANI
For pushing tough love for their troubled country.
Former Pakistani officials | Washington
Husain Haqqani and Farahnaz Ispahani have spent their careers fighting the slow-motion radicalization of Pakistan — even as it became increasingly obvious that the deck was stacked against them. The husband and wife, now in self-imposed exile in the United States, were two of Islamabad’s most prominent interlocutors with Washington as jihadists spread throughout Pakistan’s tribal areas and Osama bin Laden was discovered a mile away from the country’s version of West Point. Now, after a career defending Pakistan’s deeply unpopular ties to the United States, Haqqani is beginning to think it’s time for a geopolitical divorce.
“If in 65 years, you haven’t been able to find sufficient common ground to live together, and you had three separations and four reaffirmations of marriage, then maybe the better way is to find friendship outside of the marital bond,” Haqqani, a scholar of the Pakistani military, said in August. Ispahani, meanwhile, has tried to push Pakistan toward a frank discussion of its internal demons. The real struggle in Pakistan, she wrote this year, is “the systematic elimination” of anyone who stands up to the country’s generals, who have created “a militarized Islamist state.” She found out what standing up to them means in Pakistan’s parliament, where she was a leading voice calling for the repeal of the country’s notorious blasphemy laws — an explosive cause that has cost several of Pakistan’s leading liberal politicians their lives at the hands of Islamist killers.
Their outspokenness has had its own cost: Haqqani was forced to resign as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington and was hauled before a Pakistani court over allegations that he had sought U.S. help to head off a possible military coup, while Ispahani was stripped of her seat in parliament, ostensibly because she holds dual U.S.-Pakistani nationality. Instead of convincing Washington to rush to their aid, however, they’re trying to convince Pakistanis that their true struggles can’t be won by burning American flags. As Ispahani tweeted recently: “Stop blaming the world — look inside.”
62. ESTHER DUFLO
For relentlessly testing our assumptions about poverty.
Economist | Cambridge, Mass.
A tenured MIT professor since age 29, winner of various top-notch economics prizes, co-author of a groundbreaking book on poverty (last year’s Poor Economics) — Esther Duflo, still just 40, is firmly cemented among the world’s elite economists. Her place there is secured by a relentless (and prolific) dedication to the novel proposition that we should subject our wishful thinking about how to help poor people to cold, hard analyses of whether those ideas actually work.
She and her Poor Economics co-author, Abhijit Banerjee (her partner in life too — they had a baby this year), are co-founders and directors of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, where they have the radical idea of actually asking poor people about how they live and subjecting the various programs aimed at helping them to real, scientific, randomized controlled trials to evaluate their effectiveness. This year, for example, Duflo and two colleagues released a study debunking the oft-touted saving graces of Western-designed cookstoves. Contradicting previous laboratory results, a four-year trial in one Indian state found no evidence that families that received the stoves had improved lung function or reduced their fuel consumption. “More broadly,” Duflo’s team wrote in what could be read as her raison d’être, “this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts.”
Despite results that often show good intentions aren’t nearly good enough, Duflo insists her work should be seen as encouraging. “The fact that policies often fail for no good reason is annoying but less depressing than the view that it is a big conspiracy against the poor,” she explained to the Financial Times this year. “Name your favorite enemy — capitalism, corruption.… Our view is easier. You think hard about the problems and you can solve them.”
63. KIYOSHI KUROKAWA
For daring to tell a complacent country that groupthink can kill.
Doctor | Japan
On March 11, 2011, tsunami waves from the worst earthquake Japan had ever seen slammed the island country. Some 15,872 people died; 129,577 buildings collapsed; and three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in eastern Japan suffered a full meltdown, spewing radiation into the air and tainting a 50-mile radius of surrounding area. In the national debate that followed, the Japanese government commissioned three major reports to determine what happened. The most searing one was chaired by the outspoken Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor and emeritus professor who blasted “collusion” between government regulators and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the plant, for causing the disaster.
In Japan’s opaque political system, Kurokawa’s report amounted to a bombshell. Following a six-month investigation, including interviews with more than 1,100 people, he concluded not only that the Fukushima disaster was “man-made” but also that it resulted more fundamentally from the “ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” Critics have argued that even Kurokawa didn’t go far enough; the report names no names, and critical elements that appear in the English-language report didn’t make it into the Japanese. But his rare willingness to point fingers is exactly what may be needed to shake the world’s third-biggest economy out of its dangerous complacency.
64. DARON ACEMOGLU, JAMES ROBINSON
For showing it’s politics that makes states fail.
Economist, political scientist | Cambridge, Mass.
It’s fitting that in the year after the Arab Spring and the European debt crisis dethroned one head of state after another, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard University political scientist James Robinson put out an authoritative tome arguing, based on a sweeping historical survey stretching back to the Neolithic age, that state failure stems not from culture, geography, or insufficient technocratic expertise, but rather from what they call “extractive institutions” — those that concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few elites. “Poor countries are poor because those who have power make choices that create poverty,” the two write in Why Nations Fail. “They get it wrong not by mistake or ignorance but on purpose.”
In tackling one of history’s most vexing questions — why some countries flourish while others flounder — Acemoglu and Robinson argue that Mexico is poorer than the United States because of the institutions established by Spanish versus British colonialists, and that authoritarian China’s current economic growth is simply not sustainable. The duo has also launched a blog to apply their thesis to everything from the eurozone crisis to sexual repression in North Korea.
Along the way, Acemoglu and Robinson are making people think again (and again) about geopolitics. “The more you read [Why Nations Fail], the more you appreciate what a fool’s errand we’re on in Afghanistan and how much we need to totally revamp our whole foreign aid strategy,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman marveled. “But most intriguing are the warning flares the authors put up” about America’s growing inequality and China’s unsustainable growth. They’re danger signs world leaders would do well to heed.
65. PAUL ROMER
For dreaming big about how to reinvent cities.
Economist | New York
Back in 2009, Paul Romer began talking about “charter cities” — his novel idea for persuading a developing country to sign away a parcel of land to be governed by a foreign power as a model for economic growth, essentially creating mini-Hong Kongs throughout the Third World. The concept was generally received as intriguing but infeasible. Free trade zones and low-cost maquiladora factories are one thing, but what government would ever voluntarily let another country enforce laws on its territory? It seemed like a mix of wild-eyed futurism and old-school colonialism, and the one government that seriously considered adopting it — Madagascar’s — was overthrown in a coup shortly afterward.
Then came Honduras. President Porfirio Lobo, who came to power following his own country’s coup in 2009, was intrigued by Romer’s proposal, and over the past two years, Honduras moved substantially toward enacting his dream, even passing legislation establishing a Región Especial de Desarrollo — or RED — that would have special, market-friendly laws to attract international investors. In a geographically bizarre arrangement, the court system of Mauritius, a tiny island country in the Indian Ocean, was enlisted to serve as the RED’s appeals court. Still, big dreams don’t come easily. In September, Romer resigned from the project’s advisory board after the Honduran government signed an investment deal without the board’s input. In October, the Honduran Supreme Court ruled “private cities” unconstitutional. “I don’t know what people mean when they refer to private cities,” Romer told the Guardian before the decision. “But if it suggests that there will be no institutions or government, then I fear that misses the essential requirement for successful urbanization.”
Whether or not the Honduran Hong Kong ever materializes, Romer deserves credit for showing the power of even an outlandish idea to make us reimagine the world’s poorest places.
66. ALEXANDER MACGILLIVRAY
For defending free speech in the Twitter era.
General counsel, Twitter | San Francisco
With last year’s Arab uprisings, the world saw the power of Twitter to channel popular sentiment, mobilize protests, and even, some argued, topple dictators. That power isn’t always a given, however, and it’s Alexander Macgillivray’s job to defend it. As Twitter’s head lawyer, he has done battle with governments across the globe to protect the right of tweeps everywhere to spout off — provided, of course, they do it in 140 characters or less.
In just the past year, the longtime Silicon Valley attorney, who previously represented Google as it redefined intellectual property law for the search era, has contested attempts by the Indian government to shut down accounts, fought a U.S. court order to release data on Occupy Wall Street protesters, and even reprimanded a fellow Twitter employee for helping the company’s corporate partners silence critical voices on the site. “You don’t want business interests affecting judgment about content,” Macgillivray insisted. “It’s against the trust your users have in your service.”
But it’s a tricky balancing act. Early this year, Twitter announced a new policy giving the company the ability to “reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.” (Removing a tweet previously meant deleting it from the web entirely.) Critics said the move was a form of censorship, but Twitter promised tweets would be removed only upon request and only if they broke the law — a system that Macgillivray, one of the policy’s architects, defended as a way “to keep more tweets up in more places.” The company refused to comply with all six government removal requests in the first half of 2012, but in October Twitter blocked access in Germany to the account of a neo-Nazi group that is banned by the German government, in addition to removing anti-Semitic tweets in France. “Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently,” Macgillivray tweeted.
The microblogging service may still be figuring out the kinks of this new policy, but at a time when multinational corporations are caving left and right to countries like China, Macgillivray’s principled defense of free speech is vital. “No one wants a pen that’s going to rat them out,” he told the New York Times. “We all want pens that can be used to write anything and that will stand up for who we are.”
67. RUCHIR SHARMA
For dusting the gold off the term “emerging markets.”
Managing director, Morgan Stanley | New York
In 2008, the crash of Lehman Brothers sent the world economy into a tailspin. Four years later, the United States and the major economies of the European Union are growing anemically, if at all. The investing world has seen the Chinas and Indias as practically the only bright spots of global growth. According to Ruchir Sharma, however, the golden age for these up-and-comers is fast coming to a close.
In his new book, Breakout Nations, Sharma — who oversees a portfolio worth an estimated $25 billion — debunks the conventional wisdom that the emerging markets of the last decade will continue to drive global growth in the next one. Where some see in India, Mexico, and Russia’s growing ranks of billionaires symbols of newfound affluence, Sharma sees dangerous imbalances. Smart investors should look instead to a new class of promising economies — like “boring” Poland. Sharma’s smart geoeconomic insights — like his riff on how overpriced cocktails in Rio could be a sign of green shoots in Detroit or his take on why China’s slowdown won’t be the “cataclysmic event” that many fear (after all, “a dead camel is still larger than a horse”) — are the end product of two decades of traveling the world to seek out ground truth for himself. “The next decade is full of bright spots,” Sharma writes, “but you can’t find them by looking back at the nations that got the most hype in the last decade.”
68. CHINUA ACHEBE
For forcing Africa to confront its demons.
Author | Providence, R.I.
A giant of contemporary African letters for more than half a century, Chinua Achebe is still best known for his 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, which drew on oral traditions to tell the story of a Nigerian village transformed by colonialism and Western-imposed Christianity. He also achieved renown for his withering critiques of depictions of Africa by European writers, demanding a literature that traveled well beyond the Heart of Darkness clichés to reveal African realities, while urging Africans to be the ones to tell their own stories.
True to that appeal, this year brought Achebe’s own powerful memoir, There Was a Country, an account of his life during the 1967-1970 Biafran war. Achebe had taken the Biafran side in the conflict, which left more than 1 million people dead, and served as a roving international ambassador for the breakaway government, narrowly escaping Nigerian attacks on multiple occasions. His book makes the case that the Biafran war — Africa’s first civil war to generate major international media attention — was a harbinger of African conflicts to come, from Rwanda to Congo to Sierra Leone, all of which have their roots in the arbitrary drawing of borderlines during colonialism, were exacerbated by natural resources, and proved the inability of the international community to stop the bloodshed. “Nigeria was once a land of great hope and progress, a nation with immense resources at its disposal,” writes Achebe, today a professor of Africana studies at Brown University. “But the Biafran war changed the course of Nigeria. In my view it was a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa.”
69. MA JUN
For dreaming of blue skies over China — and working to make them.
Environmentalist | China
Sludge flows through China’s rivers. The air tastes like glue. Synthetic eggs and pigs pumped full of growth hormones and cooked in oil made of recycled sewage feature on menus across the country. In the United States, asking “Why is the sky blue?” implies something so obvious that it doesn’t have to be explained. But in China, home to some of the world’s most polluted cities, the question’s very premise is questionable.
Enter Ma Jun, the most prominent Chinese activist attempting not only to hold the government accountable but, first, to get it to tell the truth about just how dire China’s pollution problem really is. His method: diligently and painstakingly collecting evidence of companies behaving badly to try to shame them into compliance. A journalist turned environmentalist who founded the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, Ma applies scientific rigor to exposing such corporate violations (more than 90,000 to date), flagging everything from a small coal-tar factory improperly storing its dangerous waste to Apple suppliers poisoning workers with a toxic chemical used on touch screens — as well as local governments that flout environmental regulations across China. Dozens of major multinationals now consult Ma’s pollution readings when working with suppliers in China. And by documenting environmental violations that had long been obvious but were never compiled in a way the public could easily understand, Ma has given statistical ammunition to Chinese citizens trying to nudge the Communist Party into cleaning up its act.
Ma has pushed his message with vivid depictions of China’s black rivers and dun-colored heavens. In one recent article titled “A Dream of Blue Skies,” Ma writes of waiting for the day when “hospitals aren’t filled with children suffering from respiratory diseases … when you don’t have to think hard to choose the type of dustproof mask so that they can walk home from school without breathing in too much soot and exhaust.” He might be waiting for a long time, but it won’t be for lack of trying.
70. YEVGENIA CHIRIKOVA
For outsmarting Vladimir Putin, one tree at a time.
Environmentalist | Russia
Yevgenia Chirikova had never been involved in politics before 2007, when she noticed red paint on the trees of the Khimki forest outside Moscow, where she enjoyed taking walks with her family. When she learned that a wide swath of the forest was due to be razed for the construction of a highway, she did something almost inconceivable in Russian political culture: She got organized.
A successful businesswoman with her own engineering company, Chirikova soon proved an effective activist, organizing protests and blogging her struggle to save the forest. When thousands of people began attending the rallies and celebrities including U2’s Bono began speaking out on her behalf, the Russian state fought back. Chirikova was jailed multiple times, and at one point officials threatened to take away her children on trumped-up neglect charges. The Khimki protests were an early sign of the growing levels of dissent in Russia, which boiled over into the massive rallies held before, and after, Vladimir Putin’s reelection this year. And Chirikova, who helped organize the protests and recently challenged the ruling United Russia party in local elections (she lost, but alleged voter fraud), was way ahead of the curve. During the Putin era, the public faces of the Russian opposition have typically been intellectuals, ex-politicians, or tycoons. With Chirikova, who runs her campaign out of a tiny basement beside a fruit and vegetable store, Russian activists have a more accessible symbol: an ordinary woman with unusual determination fighting to save her home.