The prospect of a nuclear detonation anywhere in the world is horrifying but, for a variety of reasons, it is not entirely implausible. The suspect logic of deterrence that pertains among nuclear adversaries could unravel amid changing geopolitical circumstances. Disgruntled non-state actors could gain access to the know-how and materials needed to fashion a nuclear weapon. Or a simple accident might result in a detonation. In any of these situations, a single detonation could create a spiral of retaliation.
Before turning to the humanitarian effects of a nuclear detonation, it is perhaps appropriate to acknowledge that a detonation would not necessarily inspire the world to roll back nuclear history—to forsake the atom. Ever since the power of the atom was first unlocked, attempts to contain that power have proved tortuous (witness the weapons programs that continue to be initiated, and the importance of civilian nuclear energy in many places). The extent to which a detonation might cause the world to forsake the atom would probably depend on the scale of the detonation and on whom it affected most. If the detonation took place in a privileged enclave of the Global North, the international attention devoted to it would be vastly greater than if the detonation were to occur in a more marginalized setting in the Global South—even though population densities are often much higher in developing countries and loss of life would probably be higher too. Unfortunately, the values attached to human life are not always consistent, and this strongly influences what might be called the politics of grief.
Meanwhile, a detonation would serve as a grim reminder of the distrust that still prevails among human beings; of the myopia characterizing the outlooks of both major and middle powers; and of the "technologies of killing" that Robert Jay Lifton recently discussed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. A nuclear detonation would amount to a monumental failure of international public policy, and would threaten not only the ecosphere that human beings inhabit but also their very humanity.
Dire circumstances. But given all that, how would a nuclear detonation affect poor and middle-income nations and their development goals? To begin with, nations situated well beyond the blast site would feel the effects. The world today is deeply interconnected and events can no longer be confined to the areas where they occur. The United Nations Development Programme underscores this reality in its 2013 Human Development Report, which argues that "as global development challenges become more complex and transboundary in nature, coordinated action on the most pressing challenges of our era, whether they be poverty eradication, climate change, or peace and security, is essential." And efforts to contend with the four areas of development upon which the report focuses—"enhancing equity, including on the gender dimension; enabling greater voice and participation of citizens, including youth; confronting environmental pressures; and managing demographic change"—would in every case be seriously complicated by a nuclear detonation.
Indeed, as argued succinctly by Ray Acheson of the disarmament organization Reaching Critical Will, a detonation would seriously compromise efforts to achieve all the Millennium Development Goals. It would undermine poverty alleviation initiatives as well as cooperative efforts to foster development; limit agricultural productivity; undermine women's and children's well-being; damage national infrastructures; and reduce the planet's biodiversity.
In my view, a nuclear detonation's impact on poor and middle-income nations would be most disconcerting along three specific dimensions. First, a detonation would likely exacerbate the already abysmal nutritional conditions that exist in many countries. It would disrupt normal global patterns of food availability and distribution, generating pathological economic anxieties that, as Acheson suggests, would cause people to hoard food. A detonation would also have deleterious effects on the quality of soil, water, and air and would harm agricultural productivity. These effects would inflate prices for agricultural commodities and reduce poor people's access to food, even in nations far from the blast site.
Second, a detonation could destroy many people's livelihoods because of its environmental effects. Many poor nations are predominantly agrarian; they are also characterized by fragmented land holdings and poor returns on cultivation. People dependent on the land for a living would in the event of a detonation—which could alter climate, creating some version of "nuclear winter"—face further impoverishment and disenfranchisement. Under circumstances so dire, even a wave of farmer suicides would not be inconceivable. Thus the economic cleavages that already exist in structurally disadvantaged economies could become even deeper.
Third, the health and well-being of populations in the developing world would be seriously threatened. Not only would food prices increase, but essential drugs would likely be in short supply—both in the areas directly affected and, as supplies were directed to these areas, in other regions as well. The well-being of women and children in particular might be severely threatened—as Acheson observes, "women suffer disproportionately in disasters and … their specific needs are usually ignored during relief and rehabilitation initiatives." She also notes that "violence against women soars under the stress in post-disaster environments." The negative impact on women's quality of life would likely have a direct bearing on the well-being of children: Women's capacity to care for their children would be diminished, and children would be affected in areas ranging from nutrition to cognitive development.
The poorest nations would suffer deeply along all three of these dimensions, but I would argue that middle-income countries are not a very different kettle of fish. Conspicuous inequities often characterize these countries' economies, and segments of their populations are already ill fed and suffer from dehumanizing poverty. The ability of middle-income nations to make basic investments in human development would take a serious hit after a detonation. Redressing income inequalities would become more difficult if a detonation caused the global economy to contract. Nonetheless, middle-income countries exhibit greater state capacity than the poorest countries do and would be somewhat better positioned to absorb the shock of a nuclear detonation.