Once More Into the Breach: Refining a Plan to End Poverty

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, by Jeffrey Sachs. The Penguin Press, 396 pages, $27.95.

Consider the banality of modern-day evil: As Jeffrey Sachs reminds us in his new book, eight million impoverished men, women and children are condemned to death each year-not by terrorists or a modern-day Hitler or Stalin, but by you, the reader of this article, by me, and by every other literate and prosperous person in the West.

Our grandparents’ generation used to assuage its guilt by making small offerings to reduce this toll, but accepted that global poverty was inescapable. By the mid-20th century, our parents’ generation vaguely realized that extreme poverty could be ended, but was uncertain how. Today, says Mr. Sachs, we know how to end it; know which techniques to use and where to apply them; know how relatively little it will cost; and then choose-blindly, arrogantly, insouciantly-not to act.

That extraordinary indictment constitutes the heart and spine of Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty-and controversy will rage over its accuracy and the author’s prescriptions. Mr. Sachs, of course, is hardly new to this kind of attention. He made his reputation a quarter-century ago (among fellow economists, at least) by winning his Harvard tenure at 28, and has since become one of the most widely recognized economists of his generation, rivaled in terms of public recognition today only by Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. That celebrity status doesn’t put him on the level of, say, an Adam Smith or a John Maynard Keynes-but it guarantees that he’s talked about and looked to for advice and comment, much as John Kenneth Galbraith was a generation earlier.

Mr. Sachs is acutely aware of his celebrity-and while appearing to revel in it, seems to me intent on using it for far more important purposes than our Michael Jackson–Terri Schiavo–Martha Stewart–besotted culture is willing to accept.

U2′s Bono wrote a vivid description of Mr. Sachs in the book’s introduction: “His voice is louder than any amplified guitar … his passion operatic … physically very present, animated … with a wildness to the rhetoric but a rigor to the logic …. In time his autograph will be worth a lot more than mine.” In the pages that follow, it quickly becomes clear that Mr. Sachs’ proposals for ending global poverty (or radically reducing it) are interwoven with what amounts to an apologia pro vita mea. Whether this particular mix works-it produces a text at once autobiographical, technocratic and passionately moral-is an important but secondary question. (For those who know Mr. Sachs and development economics well, there are large and gnawing problems here.) The question the book itself asks is the one that really matters: Have we now reached a point in human history where we can in fact end poverty? And if so, will we?

The dream of ending poverty is as old as mankind itself, but only in the last two centuries, as powerful nation states and their variant nascent capitalisms together haltingly generated a new and largely stable prosperity in Europe and North America, has there been the remotest chance of success. And as we well know, battles over how the task should be accomplished have themselves consumed millions of lives and trillions of dollars.

Marx and his heirs had a memorable 150-year run, and various other political and economic ideologies-from fascism to religious utopianism-have no less claimed the abolition of poverty as their purpose. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, however, the terms of the game narrowed, as the North Atlantic bourgeois democracies have more or less inherited the field to themselves. Fifteen years ago, Francis Fukayama made his reputation by declaring this transitional moment “the end of history”-a far more sweeping claim than Mr. Sachs’, and one to which (at least for the time being) Osama bin Laden has put the lie.

Mr. Sachs’ vision, needless to say, is not original. John Maynard Keynes, in the depths of the Great Depression, fervently believed that the productive capacities that capitalism had unleashed in the 19th and early 20th centuries were, if properly managed by liberal democratic leaders (and skilled economic advisors), capable of putting “the hag-ridden” and “pseudo-moral” pursuit of wealth behind us. In 1958, Mr. Galbraith in The Affluent Society secured his reputation (and contributed a title to history) by arguing with great power and originality that the “ancient commonplace of poverty” was by then, at long last, behind us, at least in the West. The new order of the day, he said, was to solve the imbalance between the private market’s cornucopia of goods and services and the relative “poverty” of public-sector goods and services, including universal health care, environmental protections, the creation of excellent schools, etc.

Mr. Galbraith spoke as a liberal, and his proud brand of liberalism dominated American domestic policy in the 1960′s, as the New Frontier and the Great Society waged war on poverty and passed Medicare, landmark civil-rights legislation and landmark environmental protections. But liberalism’s foreign policy-in Vietnam especially-proved toxic to its political agenda and power, at home and abroad. Following Richard Nixon’s election in 1968-and then most clearly with Ronald Reagan’s in 1980-public policy entered a new conservative ideological era. “Markets”-not government-were now meant to be the anointed agent of change (“government,” Reagan told us, was “the problem, not the solution”).

The West by then had been providing various forms of development aid to the Third World since the early 1950′s, but out of motives as mixed as its “development assistance” in the preceding colonial era. By and large, liberals saw such aid as a moral and intellectual responsibility for reducing human suffering, while most conservatives viewed it as one more arrow in the West’s anti-Communist quiver, designed to help fend off Marxism. The legislative result was a confused program of economic and military assistance, with decidedly uneven results-at worst shoring up (and lining the pockets of) repugnant dictators while not significantly reducing poverty.

In the 1980′s, with the arrival of the market-knows-best era, the U.S., Britain, World Bank, I.M.F. and regional development agencies explicitly reconfigured the form, structure and rationale of their assistance. Described with disarming blandness as “structural adjustment” (or “the Washington Consensus”), the new strategy required Third World countries to assent to a list of tough “pro-market” conditions in exchange for Western cash: deregulation of domestic markets, fiscal balancing of state budgets, the sell-off of public-sector enterprises, free entry and exit rights for foreign capital, tight monetary policy, etc. If done, the West promised, a huge new flow of public and private capital would be forthcoming, and development would finally “take off.”

The theory was blackboard-perfect, but proved disastrous in practice-so disastrous that by the mid-1990′s, the World Bank and the I.M.F. explicitly abandoned “structural adjustment” for a new “poverty reduction” strategy. By then, however, Latin America’s hugely unequal income and wealth distribution had grown dramatically worse, and African development had been set back by a decade or more. (As the old Soviet Union disintegrated, “structural adjustment” was nonetheless repackaged as “shock therapy”-and predictably produced similar results, with the state’s vast wealth appropriated by billionaire oligarchs and the region’s already-shabby living standards devastated.) Ironically, the 1980′s and early 90′s did see a major reduction in Third World poverty, but most of that thanks to extraordinary gains made by China and India, which had ignored “structural adjustment” advice.

This condensed history is germane to Mr. Sachs’ book for two reasons: First, it contextualizes his proposals and, second, it shines a light on what stands in the way of their success. The so-called “Millennium Development Goals” at the heart of his book weren’t originated by Mr. Sachs, but by deeply chastened economists and policy specialists working at the multilateral agencies which had once overseen “structural adjustment.” The goals themselves were in fact put forward at the end of the 1990′s, with a target of reducing global poverty by half by 2015. Today, in 2005, implementation is already behind schedule and growing worse day by day-and Mr. Sachs, who has joined forces with Kofi Annan and others to “relaunch” the M.D.G. campaign, have now reset the target date as 2025, in admission of what hasn’t happened already.

The contribution of Mr. Sachs and his team has been to bring much more specificity to the goals, the costs, the relevant timelines and who in the rich West can foot the bill. By itself, this is admirable, because it puts the lie to those who’ve long said the M.D.G.’s were “utopian”-they clearly are not, by any reasonable measure. Thanks to Mr. Sachs, we now have the technocratic information, the blueprint for saving hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings first from insufferable deprivation and then from death.

The horrifying reality is that, by Mr. Sachs’ calculations, America’s share of the contributions needed to cut global poverty in half is a fraction of what the United States has so far spent in Iraq. Or, as he puts it slightly differently, the Bush administration’s tax cuts this year will give more money to those earning over $500,000 than would be needed to meet our part in achieving the M.D.G.’s goals.

Yet the sheer, raw, unspeakable nakedness of those facts-and the reasons why they are true-also underscores the limits to Mr. Sachs’ fundamentally technocratic arguments here. Visionary as they are, technically substantiated as they are, morally right as they are, they contain no real analysis of the concentration of power, the maldistribution of wealth, the diversionary mindlessness of our commercialized culture, or the feeble-mindedness of our politics today. At the very end of the book, Mr. Sachs rightly acknowledges these forces in our lives-but only to urge us to remember Martin Luther King, Gandhi and the abolitionists, all of whom achieved their dream.

The End of Poverty could contribute to opening up a new chapter in this troubled nation and this no-less-troubled world. For that, we should honor Jeffrey Sachs. Then others will have to take up the task of forging commitments, devising politics, driving and inspiring movements, and finally forcing systemic change in the way we live.

Richard Parker, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is the author of John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).