Postponing the ‘End of Poverty’

Economist Jeffrey Sachs' new book has an upbeat title, but the message inside is that underdevelopment is here to stay.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Politics

The End of Poverty: How we can make it happen in our lifetime, Jeffrey Sachs, Penguin, 2005.

It is rare for economists to be household names, but Jeffrey Sachs has made it into Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people (1) – and an extract from The End of Poverty became a Time cover story (2).

Sachs is at the forefront of contemporary economic thinking. He advises the United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan on development issues, and is an inspiration behind campaigns such as Make Poverty History and Jubilee 2000 (the book’s foreword is by Bono, lead singer of U2 and anti-poverty campaigner). Sachs is also director of the major anti-poverty initiative the UN Millennium Project, and his work will inform the pronouncements of world leaders when they meet in September 2005 to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals (3).

But a close reading of The End of Poverty reveals a strange inconsistency. On the one hand, Sachs talks in self-consciously grand terms about his ideas. He locates himself in the tradition of the Enlightenment – the intellectual movement initiated in eighteenth-century Europe that upheld the values of equality, science and reason. On the other hand, Sachs defines ‘ending poverty’ as ensuring that nobody lives on less than $1 (about 53p at current exchange rates) by 2025. To put this in perspective, the average American is already living on about $114 per day and the average Briton on $83 per day (4). As Sachs concedes, his ‘goal is to end extreme poverty, not to end all poverty, and still less to equalise world incomes or to close the gap between rich and poor’ (original emphasis) (5). The gulf between Sachs’ proclaimed ambition and his practical proposals is enormous.

Yet to the extent that Sachs is criticised, it is generally for being too ambitious. Many reviews of The End of Poverty said that although they admired Sachs’ vision, they were not sure that it could be realised. More conservative critics attacked the idea of having any grand plan for ending poverty. For instance, William Easterly, a professor of economics at New York University, argued in the Washington Post that people should ‘read Sachs’ eloquent descriptions of poverty and his compelling ethical case for the rich to help the poor. Just say no to the Big Plan’ (6).

Why this mismatch between perception and reality? Perhaps because the notion of ‘development’ is dead. In the decades following the Second World War there was widespread agreement that the poorer parts of the world – mainly former colonies – should aspire to reach the living standards of the developed world. The gap between the rich and the poor world was enormous, but at least there was the idea that the third world should strive to become modern.

In recent years, the idea of development – in the sense of economic modernisation – has come to be seen as not feasible, or even desirable. A landmark here was the United Nations Brundtland Report of 1987, which promoted the idea of ‘sustainable development’ – defined as giving overriding priority to ‘the essential needs of the world’s poor’. In other words, the sole focus should be on the most basic needs of the poor. Even worse, the report argued that technology and social organisation put limits on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs – so suggesting that the environment places natural limits on development (7).

It is only because official policy has given up on development that Sachs’ work can be seen as ambitious. Sachs argues that if the rich countries live up to their long-standing promises, such as increasing aid to 0.7 per cent of GDP, then there will be no more extreme poverty by 2025. In contrast, in 2001, the latest year for which figures are available, 1.1billion people lived on less than a dollar a day.

The problem is not simply that Sachs fails to go far enough in promoting development. Instead, it is that the concept of poverty reduction is diametrically opposed to development in its proper sense. Reducing poverty in Sachs’ terms means finding technocratic solutions to alleviate the suffering of the poorest section of the world’s population. Development, by contrast, should mean mobilising the mass of the population to transform poor societies into rich ones.

Sachs’ penultimate chapter, ‘Why we should do it’, brings out the limitations of this worldview. For him, the key reason for reducing poverty is that poor countries pose a threat to global security. While he concedes that many of the 9/11 hijackers came from well-off backgrounds, he still argues that poor countries are more likely to provide a base for terrorists. The fact that al-Qaeda, such as it exists as a coherent organisation, gets much of its inspiration from the West, seems to have eluded him (8).

In any case, from a true Enlightenment perspective, the reason to support development is in order to unleash human potential. The billions of people who live in poverty are prevented from playing a full role in society. A massive amount of human potential goes unrealised. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the key figures of the Enlightenment, wrote at the start of his book The Social Contract: ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.’ (9)

Though the poor suffer tremendously as a result of poverty, this does not mean that they should be seen solely as victims. Ten thousand Africans dying needlessly every day is a tragedy of immense proportions. But Africans, along with other people, should be seen as capable of making their own history, rather than as merely passive recipients of Western charity.

Ultimately, Sachs recognises that he cannot maintain his position as a full-blooded advocate of the Enlightenment, arguing that: ‘The critics of progress should therefore be met partway.’ (10) But he does not realise that he has already conceded the key arguments made by the critics of development. The very notion of progress, of striving for a better type of society, is missing from his work.

It is high time that the Enlightenment view of development was rehabilitated. The economic backwardness of much of the world represents a massive squandering of human potential. It is time to break the chains of inequality so humanity can truly be free.

Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of Cowardly Capitalism: The Myth of the Global Financial Casino, John Wiley and Sons, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Buy Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: How we can make it happen in our lifetime, Penguin, 2005 from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Read on:

Poor ambitions for the world, by Daniel Ben-Ami

Throwing salt on the ‘scar of Africa’, Daniel Ben-Ami

(1) ‘Jeffrey Sachs: The people’s economist’, Time, 18 April 2005

(2) ‘How to end poverty’, Time, 14 March 2005

(3) See UN Millennium Project website

(4) Figures, calculated on a purchasing power parity basis, from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database, available at Strictly speaking the $1 a day threshold is defined as $1.08 day at 1993 international prices. See Indicators for Monitoring the Millennium Development Goals

(5) The End of Poverty, p289

(6) ‘A modest proposal’, William Easterly, Washington Post, 13 March 2005. Easterly’s review provoked an angry response from Sachs that was published two weeks later: see here

(7) For the full definition of sustainable development in the Brundtland Report see Our Common Future: The World Commission on Environment and Development Oxford: Oxford University Press 1987, p43

(8) See Fundamentalism begins at home, by Josie Appleton

(9) The text of The Social Contract is available online here

(10) The End of Poverty, p353

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Topics Politics


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