In 1961, India was not only suffering from polio but was, as it so often was, on the verge of famine. In no small part as a result of the work of the Ford Foundation, which helped Indian farmers introduce superior rice strains, that situation was miraculously reversed. Production was trebled, real prices halved. India went from basket case to breadbasket, and is today a major rice exporter, sending out a record 11 million tons in marketing year 2012–2013.
Americans are a bit crabby right now, and not without just cause, economic and political. When we look at places like India, we tend to see economic competitors taking our jobs. (“Our jobs,” funny phrase.) What we should see is a world that has been to some extent remade — peaceably and cooperatively, to a remarkable extent — in our own image. From Mr. Gates and his fortune to Mr. Salk and his vaccine, to the horrific but necessary sacrifices that rolled back first fascism and then Communism, to leading the way toward freer trade, the United States played an indispensible role in making possible what is by any material measure a better world. Of course there are costs. But rather than looking around the world and despairing that progress elsewhere means more economic competition for us, we 21st-century Americans ought to take some satisfaction in the fact that the current state of the human race — warts and jihadists and AIDS notwithstanding, still better than it ever has been — is in no small part the result of an unlikely project that got under way when a half-organized gaggle of obscure provincials decided they’d paid enough tea taxes. Of course an American businessmen’s lunch club took the lead in eradicating polio around the world: Who else is going to do it?