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A congested agenda

A congested agenda
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First Published: Sat, Apr 19 2008. 12 16 AM IST

Green war: Put a stop to environmental degradation, Sachs urges.
Green war: Put a stop to environmental degradation, Sachs urges.
Updated: Sat, Apr 19 2008. 12 16 AM IST
Common Wealth | Jeffrey Sachs
Jeffrey Sachs has come a long way. From doctoring “shock therapy” in Bolivia, Poland and Russia to advocating statist policies, he’s engaging in revisionist economics.
His new book, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, has been written at a time when there is a rethinking in the West about global security—why it requires much more than military might. It requires taking Third World governments as problem-solving partners, and not just mere locations of the problem.
Green war: Put a stop to environmental degradation, Sachs urges.
Increased flow of aid has long been considered a vital part of the solution to issues such as poverty, environmental degradation and disease control in the Third World. It’s as if throwing some money at the disaffected and the disenchanted would do the trick, and Sachs has been a leading light in this way of thinking—in a sense, a return to the post-World War II era when the West, filled with guilt about its colonial past, decided to help newly independent states rebuild themselves. International aid and technical cooperation were thought to be the best means to do that. Generous amounts were passed on to new countries in Africa and Asia.
Poor governance, meaningless attempts at poverty elimination and the rise of a rapacious class of Third World elites have been the results of this process. By early 1980s, aid fatigue had set in.
Sachs, however, continues to believe in the efficacy of such aid. He argues in this book that roughly 2.4% of the Gross National Product of rich countries would make a big dent in all the big problems that confront the planet. This is a pious hope and little else.
The fact is that most, if not all, of the problems confronting poor nations are of their own creation. Rapid rises in fertility rates, ethnic conflict, galloping poverty and resource mismanagement are linked. Third World states simply do not have the capacity to solve even basic problems. The mismatch between capacities and hope in these states is breathtaking. The West has done its bit by providing aid, technical expertise and advanced training to individuals from these countries.
Common Wealth: Allen Lane, 386 pages, Rs695.
But that has not helped. The damage done by statist policies cannot be underestimated. Even after these policies were done away with and market mechanisms ushered in, the legacy of lopsided incentives continues to linger. The gains from cheating and corruption in the short run to individuals with political power far outweigh the long-term gains to the citizens in these countries. This is a problem these nations have to solve on their own and no amount of aid can be a substitute for that effort.
This is not to deny that Sachs has a point. He does, but he could have made a more persuasive argument. For example, had he rebutted the criticism of economist William Easterly and others about the inefficiency of aid to the Third World, the impact would have been greater. The book, however, continues with many of the themes that resonated in his previous work, The End of Poverty. It’s a crowded, if not congested, agenda: from population dynamics to US foreign policy to achieving global cooperation on pressing problems—all in 386 pages.
Perhaps this is inevitable. But, even for a thinker such as Sachs, this is an ill-founded argument. In his attempt to prod the US government to do more, he takes his developmental ideas to the realm of foreign policy. No nation in history has made humanitarian efforts a mainstay of its foreign policy. Why should the US do so?
Similarly, his prescription for international cooperation is hopelessly idealistic. International cooperation on contentious issues such as global warming is never easy to achieve. Each country wants to maximize output and post higher economic growth. Sachs, the economist, ought to have known better.
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First Published: Sat, Apr 19 2008. 12 16 AM IST