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Sachs's initiative to end poverty

February 25, 2009 15:43 IST

The fight to end poverty sometimes looks like an industry that depends on the poor's impoverished state for its own survival.

Jeffrey Sachs's (noted US economist and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University) book End of Poverty is a jolt to shake us out of that rut. It dismisses claims that faulty governance is responsible for their state and exhorts the world's rich to contribute 0.7 per cent of their GNP (almost $200 billion) to halve global poverty by 2015.

"The biggest problem today is not that poorly governed countries get too much help, but that well-governed countries get far too little," Sachs writes. His remarkable effort in bringing extreme poverty to light is laudable as is his critique of 'trade not aid' approaches. He asserts that social marketing methods "have been unrealistic about what the poor can afford to pay, which is usually little or nothing."

Aid is critical in the short term. As he says, "poor countries will need 'trade plus aid.'"

But any scheme to improve the human condition has to go beyond trade and aid. Political history, social injustices, global climactic change and cultural nuances play an equal role. Defining poverty without that local context is reductive. For instance, Sachs argues that technology, not exploitation, is the main reason for the long-term growth of the West; the globe, therefore, "has a reasonable hope of reaping the benefits of technological advance."

The Industrial Revolution though, only gained enormity through colonization's exploitative military forces. Similarly, using technology alone in rural India cannot address deep-rooted injustices.

A computer kiosk simply cannot address issues like abusive farmers who waste money on alcohol and social barriers that prevent 'lower-caste' villagers from accessing the kiosks. But despite inconclusive assessments of rural Internet kiosks by the Indian Institute of Information Technology in July 2005, the Indian government has sought to invest in them heavily.

Sachs's techno-centric approach also assumes that knowledge wealth is an exclusive resource of the West. Indian IT workers sit at "Dell computers, using Microsoft and SAP software," he says. That is, expertise and trade flow from the West. But unlocking knowledge's perceived 'rootedness' is crucial to poverty alleviation.

Sachs's formula works better for health crises in impoverished communities. Africa's malaria catastrophe -- exacerbated by its unique climate -- is preventable "through the use of bed nets and other environmental controls," he writes.

Pilot projects like the Sauri village in Kenya have had reduced malaria cases and three-fold harvest increases in one year, largely due to improved seeds and soil nutrient replenishment. To get millions of Sauris though, you need to invest in local agricultural input and strengthen grassroots movements.

Indian agriculture, for instance, has massively suffered from outside 'innovation.' Genetically modified seeds, unregulated money lending, and unpredictable climactic conditions and commodities markets have led to farmer suicides across the country this decade.

Wars complicate agricultural issues in Africa. "In Somalia, Liberia, there's no food, but there are guns on the street," remarked Celestin, a New York-based labourer from Cameroon. Oil revenues enable local tyrannical governments to buy guns from Western defense companies to use against their own population. Guns drag locals away from employment into avoidable wars.

Sachs rightly argues that 'development' is not a zero-sum game. But seen through an economic lens, it could just be ill-defined: is the American suburban five-bedroom house really better for the planet's well-being than a small apartment in a dense Accra neighborhood? (Sachs calls for sustainable development, but it has little meaning if externally coerced).

Capitalism created the world's rich economies. But if unchecked, as in Poland and Russia, it can spiral into widespread inflation and unemployment, corruption and environmental degradation.

It has led to our current debt-ridden climate built on the false promise of futures where swindlers like Bernard Madoff can pay investors with "money that wasn't there."

The IMF acknowledged that its free-market policies in developing countries failed. But even shock therapy and technology aid, while noble, may just reinforce bureaucratic power without improving a citizen's lot.

Why do the rich have to help? Sachs likens aid to an act of "enlightened self-interest," citing linkages between poverty and terrorism. He attempts to address social inequality by asking readers to "raise the voice of the poor."

But development -- beyond trade and aid -- is crucial for the sake of humanity itself.

Africa is not just a sum of its vast resources; wasteful and sometimes disconnected Western societies aren't paradigms of virtue either. Unshackled and able societies can alone realise the human potential in ways they know better than any outsider.

Venkat Srinivasan