Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Reviews of Jeffrey D. Sachs' The End of Poverty

(Update, Friday, July 15, 2005: See also Roger Bate's very critical review in the Weekly Standard, here (sub req'd).)

Jeffrey D. Sachs' celebrated new book, The End of Poverty, has been reviewed nearly everywhere, of course, and I've tried to keep up with reading them alongside the book itself. The two reviews I have found most interesting are found in the Economist magazine and in the Times Literary Supplement.

The Economist's (anonymous) review is particularly helpful to those unfamiliar with the field of development economics; it is a programmatic, hard-headed review, here. It is enthusiastic about Sachs, the book, and its recommendations, with some reservations (which I entirely share):

IF JEFFREY SACHS, itinerant adviser to poor-country governments, scourge of the International Monetary Fund, head of Columbia University's Earth Institute, United Nations' expert of choice on third-world development, and much else besides, were ever to retire (an improbable scenario, admittedly) statistics would show a perceptible downward shift in global output. The man's productivity is staggering. No sooner has the UN published its huge new report on the Millennium Development Goals, drawn up under Mr Sachs's supervision, than the phenomenon is in print again. With typical moderation, Mr Sachs has entitled his new book, “The End of Poverty”.

The book is an unusual and in some ways slightly odd mixture of personal memoir, economics textbook and development manifesto. There are chapters of economic history and analysis. These serve as a lucid introduction to the theory and practice of development. Mr Sachs tells of how he learned his business as an adviser in Bolivia, Poland, Russia, India, China and Africa—a fascinating story in its own right. In its second half the book shifts to an extended argument for new approaches to confronting disease and extreme poverty in the developing countries, and especially for far more generous aid.

Aid can work, the book argues fervently, but you have to think big. Even when conditions are such that aid is likely to succeed (when standards of governance are adequate, when supporting policies are in place, and so forth) rich-country governments have been mean, fickle and short-sighted about aid. Find those cases where aid can work, says Mr Sachs, spend generously, and sustain it. This central point is persuasively hammered home.

To be sure, the virtues of the book vastly outweigh its failings, just as the virtues of Mr Sachs dwarf his. Book and man are brilliant, passionate, optimistic and impatient. But Mr Sachs is not, as he sometimes appears to think, the developing countries' only hope. And he tends too often to accuse people who disagree with him of bad faith. Many of his economic conclusions are contested. Some people who are less keen than he is to spend more on aid may care just as much about poverty. Not everybody who thinks that corruption is widespread in Africa, and that corruption renders aid ineffective, is racist. “Pessimism about Africans' ability to utilise aid is very deep, reflecting an amazing reservoir of deep prejudices. I have heard those prejudices for years and have come to expect them, always with sadness.”

Not just with sadness, actually: people who disagree with Mr Sachs also make him angry, weary and disgusted. The author believes he is fighting not merely error but also widespread immorality. That is an odd stance for a man to take, who has himself often been unfairly accused of caring nothing for the “victims” of his policies.

The book is mostly clear and hard-headed about what works in promoting economic development. But it is briefly marred by some pretty soft-headed stuff about the evils of unilateralism, the war in Iraq and the moral and intellectual failings of the Bush administration. Mr Sachs states these views as though they follow from his hard-learned economic wisdom—which of course, whether right or wrong, they do not. On the other hand, Mr Sachs is far too kind to anti-globalisation activists, applauding their fervour and conviction while gently disagreeing with their policy ideas, which in fact he regards as ignorant and ruinous (why not extend the same courtesy to the Bush administration?).

And, frankly, it is difficult to forgive his invitation to Bono to write the introduction to the book. Describing his experience of campaigning with Mr Sachs, the Irish rock singer recalls, “I would enter the world of acronyms with a man who can make alphabet soup out of them. Soup you'd want to eat. Soup that would, if ingested properly, enable a lot more soup to be eaten by a lot more people.” Sorry, even if it sells more copies of this otherwise outstanding book, publishing such drivel cannot be right.

[Other Economist magazine links:

Recasting the case for aid Jan 20th 2005, Debt and development Economics, The UN’s Millennium Development Goals were drawn up under Mr Sachs’s supervision. He heads Columbia University’s Earth Institute.]

The second review is much more complicated in its approach. It appears in the Times Literary Supplement, June 24, 2005, No. 5334, pages 3-4, "Band of Hope: Players From the Past Whose Spirits Should Rule the G8," by Stein Ringen, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at Oxford (currently available online here, although not necessarily permanently).

Ringen takes the Sachs' book together with a new book by Garth Stedman Jones, An End to Poverty?: A Historical Debate - and this move to consider the most contemporary issues in international development theory and practice in the context of the centuries long debate over poverty gives Ringen important space to consider Sachs' proposals and programme against, especially, the Enlightenment legacy of Tom Paine and Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet. Paine and Condorcet, Ringen tells us, gave a counter theory, an Enlightenment theory of progress, to the assumption during pretty much the rest of human history that poverty is permanent. Or, as Jesus put it, "Ye have the poor with you always." Ringen says:

"Through human history, poverty has been seen as a normal, natural, obvious and unavoidable fact of life. A counter theory, though, emerged only 200 years ago when the idea of societies without poverty was invented. Poverty, it was suggested, is unacceptable and something that should and could be made away with. We are entitled to call that an invention. It was an idea that had not previously been thought. The inventors were Tom Paine in Britain and Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet in France. They took their political inspiration from the great Revolutions in America and France, and their intellectual inspiration from Adam Smith, that champion of freedom and justice. A battlefield of ideas was thereby opened up between the old – poverty is obvious – and the new – poverty is unacceptable. Two centuries on we are still fighting the same battle ...

"Paine and Condorcet were evolutionary optimists and saw history, at least post-Revolution, as a march of progress. The elimination of poverty was for them, writes Gareth Stedman Jones in An End to Poverty?, “part of a pitched battle between enlightenment and the receding powers personified by the aristocracy and the established church”. Their invention contained not only an idea but also a programme. Poverty would be eliminated by a political management of the economy so as to redistribute its surplus to everyone. Both drew up detailed blueprints of what we now call the Welfare State."

It is the idea of the welfare state that Ringen draws out of Paine and Condorcet and deploys against Sachs. It is the most original move in the essay - and indeed the most original in any of the reviews I have read. It is also, it seems to me, the most originally wrong-headed. Sachs, Ringen correctly says, is concerned with economic development, the creation of opportunities for the poor. Aid, on this model, is a means by which to produce opportunities which the poor are then able to make use of. It is not, emphatically not, intended to be the redistribution of the welfare state; income transfer from rich to poor is not the end of development policy, but merely a means by which to create conditions by which the poor can leave poverty. Sachs, whatever the weaknesses of his programme, understands that global development strategy cannot be done on analogy with income transfers within a welfare state. The world is not Sweden. "Not even Sachs," Ringen correctly says, "has really accepted the [welfare state for the world] idea as Paine and Condorcet proposed it."

To my mind, this is precisely what recommends Sachs' approach, despite my many disagreements with the programme in its details. It is thus precisely what disturbs Ringen - Sachs has not drafted Beveridge's Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services (1942) that created the British welfare state. Hence Ringen's repeated concern that rich countries have not come close to meeting the supposed target of 0.7% GDP in official development aid - it is an indication of the unwillingness of rich countries to even begin a modest amount of income transfer from rich to poor at the official level. If, by contrast and contra Ringen, you start from the assumption that aid is a means to an end, then the 0.7% goal does not really mean very much - and for that matter, it was an arbitrary figure pulled out of the air back in the sixties and bears no relation to what development might actually cost. My feeling is that it is probably more than that, and Sachs would surely agree. But the point is that income transfer is not the point of a development programme.

Nevertheless, Ringen has written a compelling essay that is well worth reading, on two books that are well worth reading.

A final thought. Lurking behind Ringen's critique of Sachs on the basis of Paine and Condorcet is an unacknowledged premise - that there is no real difference between what goes on within a particular society and particular country and state, and what goes on in the world as a whole. Because Ringen admits of no principled difference, he thinks, therefore, that Sachs should be proposing a global welfare state as though the world were a society in which something like a global Beveridge report could make sense. The world is not unitary in that way, however, and on practical and ideal grounds it makes little sense to think of solutions such as the welfare state that are tied to, well, a state. Ringen nowhere acknowledges this issue in his own critique. (Cf. Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice.)

No comments: