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****The End of Poverty

Economic Possibilities for Our Time

by Jeffrey D. Sachs

Reviewed December 17, 2006.
The Penguin Press, New York, 2005.  396 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (MCN 339.409 SAC).

This book is not at all light reading, but the subject matter is tremendously important.  The author seriously presents a way that we can eliminate the worst kinds of poverty which leave the people of entire nations destitute.  He makes a strong case that working on this problem will solve many other problems as well.

No, he’s not trying to bring in the Millennium or something like that.  He simply shows how we can help people who have reached the level of desperation—and thus improve our own stability far more effectively than going to war.

Jeffrey Sachs introduces the book with the words:  “This book is about ending poverty in our time.  It is not a forecast.  I am not predicting what will happen, only explaining what can happen.  Currently, more than eight million people around the world die each year because they are too poor to stay alive.  Our generation can choose to end that extreme poverty by the year 2025.”

He tells us that the U.S. spends $450 billion on the military, and $15 billion per year on the plight of the poor.  “That $15 billion represents a tiny percentage of U.S. income, just 15 cents on every $100 of U.S. gross national product, or GNP.  The share of U.S. GNP devoted to helping the poor has declined for decades, and is a tiny fraction of what the United States has repeatedly promised, and failed, to give.  It is also much less than the United States should give, both to solve the crisis of extreme poverty and thereby to provide for U.S. national security.  This book, then, is about making the right choices—choices that can lead to a much safer world based on true reverence and respect for human life.”

Jeffrey Sachs doesn’t rely on rhetoric to make his points.  The nearly 400 pages that follow present facts and figures, show historic trends, and make a strong case for methods that can actually reduce poverty.  He claims his book will “help to show the way toward the path of peace and prosperity, based on a detailed understanding of how the world economy has gotten to where it is today, and how our generation could mobilize our capacities in the coming twenty years to eliminate the extreme poverty that remains.”

His credentials are impressive, and so is the scope of his information.  He analyzes modern economic growth and shows what factors helped make the prosperous countries prosperous, and why some countries, on the other hand, fail to thrive.  He says that economists should be like medical doctors, not rushing to a simple diagnosis.  Like the human body, economies are complex systems.  He says there a six areas an economist wanting to help should look at:  the extent of extreme poverty, the economic policy framework of the country, the fiscal framework of the country, physical geography and human ecology, patterns of governance, and cultural barriers to economic development.

Did I mention that this is an academic and scholarly book?  The author doesn’t talk down to his readers, but presents the issue in all of its complexity.

Interestingly, he has developed his principles from actual experience.  In 1985, he flew to Bolivia, to help with their out-of-control inflation.  He found that the theoretical economics he had learned didn’t adequately deal with the situation, and learned much about “clinical economics.”  In 1989, he visited Poland and helped develop a plan to establish a market economy.  Later, when Russia got into economic trouble, he helped them to stabilize the ruble.  He also gives information about the economic growth of China and India.

He goes on to discuss specific recommendations for ending poverty and helping poor countries achieve economic growth.  He looks on the ground, as well as at the big picture.  For example, poor economies need agricultural inputs, investments in basic health, investments in education, power, transport and communications services, and safe drinking water and sanitation.  Some of these basic things could be provided relatively cheaply—and without them, growth is almost impossible.

He has a chapter titled, “Can the Rich Afford to Help the Poor?”  In it, he says, “All of the incessant debate about development assistance, and whether the rich are doing enough to help the poor, actually concerns less than 1 percent of rich-world income.  The effort required of the rich is indeed so slight that to do less is to announce brazenly to a large part of the world, ‘You count for nothing.’  We should not be surprised, then, if in later years the rich reap the whirlwind of that heartless response.”

Then he gives five reasons why “the level of required effort is, in truth, so modest:

“First, the numbers of extreme poor have declined to a relatively small proportion of the world’s population….”

“Second, the goal is to end extreme poverty, not to end all poverty, and still less to equalize world incomes or to close the gap between the rich and the poor.  This may eventually happen, but if so, the poor will have to get rich on their own effort.  The rich can help most by giving the extreme poor some assistance to extricate themselves from the poverty trap that now ensnares them.”

“Third, success in ending the poverty trap will be much easier than it appears.  For too long, too much economic thinking has been directed at the wrong question—how to make the poor countries into textbook models of good governance or efficient market economies.  Too little has been done to identify the specific, proven low-cost interventions that can make a difference in living standards and economic growth.  When we get practical, and speak of investments in specific areas—roads, power, transport, soils, water and sanitation, disease control—the task is suddenly a lot less daunting.

“Fourth, the rich world today is so vastly rich.  An effort to end extreme poverty that would have seemed out of reach even a generation or two ago is now well within reach because the costs are now such a small fraction of the vastly expanded income of the rich world.”

“Fifth, our tools are more powerful than ever.  Mobile phones and the Internet are ending the information famine of rural areas in Asia and Africa.  Improved logistics systems now enable global industries to operate profitably in far-flung regions.  Modern agronomic practices, including improved seed breeding, agrobiotechnology, and science-based management of soil nutrients, are restoring lands that were long degraded or opening new lands that were previously considered infertile.”

He gets into specific details about how much money is needed in different areas to give countries the boost up that they need.  He also confronts myths about foreign aid.  For example, to those who say that money to Africa is money down the drain, he says, “It is no surprise that there is so little to show for the aid to Africa, because there has in fact been so little aid to Africa!”

We also tend to think that the U.S. is giving more aid than it is.  “Of the limited aid that the United States gives, a large proportion of it goes to pay for U.S. experts (technical assistance) or for emergency relief and food grains rather than for long-term investments in infrastructure or education or health.  The aid, in other words, is not only very small compared to U.S. GNP and foreign needs, but is given in a form that offers little long-term help.  The pattern is not confined to the current Bush administration.  It has been a feature of U.S. aid policy for decades.”

Another thing I didn’t realize is that the U.S. has made many commitments that it simply doesn’t keep.  “American political leaders and the broad public rarely recognize that the U.S. government has repeatedly made international commitments to do much more than the United States is doing, and even less do they realize that the lack of follow-through carries an enormous foreign policy cost.”  He gives several examples of specific agreements which we have signed but not kept.

He concludes the book with specific steps we can take toward the goal of ending extreme poverty by the year 2025.

“Let the future say of our generation that we sent forth mighty currents of hope, and that we worked together to heal the world.”

Copyright © 2006 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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