Solving World Hunger is Rocket Science

July 28, 2012 § 2 Comments


The End of Poverty: How We Can Make It Happen In Our Lifetime (Sachs, Jeffrey) 

I have now read three books published within the span of a few months between mid-2004 and mid-2005, each a best-seller on the same subject (broadly): third world poverty, and what needs to be done about it. One was written by a journalist (Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat), the second by a management consulting guru (CK Prahalad’s Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, reviewed here) and the third, the book under review, by an economist and academic. All three authors were celebrities in their respective fields, residents of the United States but extremely well-networked with powerful corporate and government leaders around the globe. At the same time, from the same place, hanging out with the same folks, discussing the same topic…one would think they would say the same thing. That they do not stands testimony not merely to individual analytical ability (or lack thereof) but also to the bewildering complexity of the field of global developmental economics.

Indeed, in one of his most memorable passages, Sachs compares developmental economics to 18th century medical science, which was little more than a combination of strongly held prejudices and blind guesswork, advanced in an authoritarian tone, and woefully unsuccessful in curing patients.

The world is just fine, said Friedman – the free market is in the process of killing poverty. The world is not quite OK, said Prahalad – but the free market can save the day, if they decide to. The world is in terrible shape, says Sachs, but it can be rescued, but not by the free market alone – it will require the concerted effort of private individuals, corporations, non-governmental agencies and governments, leveraging loans, direct investments, appropriate technology, education, good governance… and good, old-fashioned aid.

The Gold Medals at the real Hunger Games: UN Millennium Goals (courtesy unmillenniumproject.org)

Friedman confuses anecdotes picked up from golfing buddies with actual facts, absorbing them without a hint of scepticism or scrap of analysis, and replaying them to his readers with amplified, messianic exuberance. He believes, implicitly, that the wealth generated by a handful of technology firms is pouring down and translating into the general prosperity of a billion people. This is touching but naive. Prahalad is stronger at math and does his homework, and so describes the problem adequately. It is not that his solutions are wrong: they’re merely insufficient. Prahalad’s error is to define the solution purely in terms of the market economy, failing to recognize that poverty reaches further, into the social, political and human developmental realms, like the multi-headed hydra monster of yore, and all these need to be addressed simultaneously. Chop one head off alone, and another grows in its place. Merely leave a flesh wound, and all you’ve done is made the monster mad. These non-market aspects are messy things, however, not activities that multinational corporations are necessarily keen or, indeed, equipped, to get involved in.

At first, I thought Sachs was not about to do much better. He had his foreword written by a middle-aged rock star, and spent much of the first few chapters dropping names like drone bombs on Afghans – names of presidents and finance ministers, of a dozen countries that he had personally worked with and wrought miracles for in his spare time. But I was wrong: Sachs is a better man than that.

For one thing, Sachs has a lot more by way of insightful analysis – comparisons across countries, maps, trends across time, correlations and patterns established. For another, he had actually been to these places – AIDS hospitals, villages and schools across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – and he has witnessed the situation firsthand. For a third, he uses all his experiences and all the data available to weave together a cast-iron, logical argument that goes something like this:

  1. Extreme poverty exists in large pockets in the world, mainly in Africa and South Asia
  2. It is characterized not just by an acute lack of money, or that of food, potable water, medicines, physical security, or shelter from extreme weather, but also a deficiency of focus on developmental factors like primary education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health and sustainability
  3. Extreme poverty has been hard to eradicate precisely because these factors are intertwined in complex ways.
  4. Conventional methods adopted by donor countries and the Bretton Woods agencies have not worked because they are uni-dimensional, and not well-thought through. They have typically involved a grudging loan that is a fraction of the amount needed, with several strings and a punitive interest rate attached
  5. The servicing of these inadequate loans has led to further depletion of necessary resources to combat poverty
  6. The West has traditionally blamed corrupt and inefficient governments for the failure of their assistance. This is definitely a factor, but not the only one
  7. The IMF demands to open up markets and cut government spending, as pre-requisites for assistance, have resulted in political and social chaos and frequently the fall of governments; these demands are also hypocritical and unlikely to be acceptable to Western populations themselves, under similar circumstances
  8. The United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals initiative is a comprehensive set of targets that if achieved, could plausibly result in eradication of extreme poverty. The goals are achievable with good planning on the part of the recipient country and sufficient support from the donors
  9. Finally -and this is the toughest part of the argument – it is worth the while of rich countries like the US to invest in the eradication of poverty, both from a moral or religious standpoint, and from that of practical long-term self-interest.

If the case for the US to invest is compelling, their current record is hugely disappointing. The US spends 30 times more on military adventures than on assistance to struggling countries, a ratio that is worse than any other Western nation except Greece; the savings from GW Bush’s tax cuts of 2000-02 for households with incomes greater than $500,000 alone would have sufficed to pay US’ share of the MDG needs (which it hasn’t); the amount required to stamp out poverty is so small in comparison with what the donor nations have offered…Sachs ticks off the damning statistics one by one. It’s enough to make grown men weep.

But it doesn’t, and that is the most powerful thing about this book. The overriding emotion that Sachs conveys is not of frustration and despair. This thing can be done. With tireless, relentless work, attitudes can and must be changed. Poverty has to be wiped out, and together, we will live to see it happen. Sachs’ is a message of hope and optimism in the face of long odds and universal apathy, a message that is simultaneously more believable and more inspiring than anything Friedman and Prahalad could manage. I think we have a winner, ladies and gentlemen.

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§ 2 Responses to Solving World Hunger is Rocket Science

  • Rick Searle says:

    You and your readers might be interested in this recent TED Talk by a guy who hopes to use “crowd sourcing” to address the Millennium Development Goals.

    I found it a little pollyannaish, but also interesting and hopeful.

    • psriblog says:

      Thanks for pointing me to this, Rick. The trouble with this topic, of course, is that authors tend to be polyannaish if only to compensate for the depressing statistics – nobody likes reading depressing stuff, and even developmental economists want people to read their books.
      I found Sachs more balanced than most, to be honest.

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