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Sunday, 31 May 2015

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time.

Jeffrey D. Sachs has been cited by The New York Times Magazine as “probably the most important economist in the world” and by Time as “the world’s best-known economist.” He has advised an extraordinary range of world leaders and international institutions on the full range of issues related to creating economic success and reducing the world’s poverty and misery. Now, at last, he draws on his entire twenty-five-year body of experience to offer a thrilling and inspiring big-picture vision of the keys to economic success in the world today and the steps that are necessary to achieve prosperity for all.

Marrying vivid eyewitness storytelling to his laserlike analysis, Jeffrey Sachs sets the stage by drawing a vivid conceptual map of the world economy and the different categories into which countries fall. Then, in a tour de force of elegance and compression, he explains why, over the past two hundred years, wealth has diverged across the planet in the manner that it has and why the poorest nations have been so markedly unable to escape the cruel vortex of poverty. The groundwork laid, he explains his methods for arriving, like a clinical internist, at a holistic diagnosis of a country’s situation and the options it faces. Rather than deliver a worldview to readers from on high, Sachs leads them along the learning path he himself followed, telling the remarkable stories of his own work in Bolivia, Poland, Russia, India, China, and Africa as a way to bring readers to a broad-based understanding of the array of issues countries can face and the way the issues interrelate. He concludes by drawing on everything he has learned to offer an integrated set of solutions to the interwoven economic, political, environmental, and social problems that most frequently hold societies back. In the end, he leaves readers with an understanding, not of how daunting the world’s problems are, but how solvable they are—and why making the effort is a matter both of moral obligation and strategic self-interest. A work of profound moral and intellectual vision that grows out of unprecedented real-world experience, The End of Poverty is a road map to a safer, more prosperous future for the world.


1) The Economist as Savior - Jeffery Sachs' "The End of Poverty" is three books in one: First, it is an exploration of the world, focusing on economics but surveying wide array of topics regarding international relations and politics, and offers a portrait of the planet today. Second, it is a crash course in development economics. Finally, it is an impassioned plea for more western aid to poor countries particularly in Africa.

I know of no better book for understanding the current state of the world. In several brilliant
Chapters, Sachs takes us through the hyperinflation of Bolivia, the post Cold War transition to market economies in Poland, Russia, India and China, and the struggles for existence in Sub Saharan Africa. All these are put into context of International Relations, Economics and Politics, and personified through Sachs' description of his own role in these happenings. It's a tour de force.

The weaknesses here are the complete absence of the Middle East, and Sachs' all-too-human tendency to portray himself as the epicenter of the events he describes, convincing Polish politicians to accept responsibility, and leading the fight against hyper inflation in Bolivia. But his involvement has not necessarily been as influential or beneficial as he portrays it: Bolivia, at least, can hardly be called a success story; Even though Sachs praises both its leaders and its policies, Bolivia is still not up to its 1980 level of GDP per Capita (p. 108).

As a primer on development economics, "The End of Poverty" is a more of a mixed bag. At best, it offers powerful insights, particularly about the importance of Geography to economic development. Although the case has been made before (most famously by Jared Diamond in
 Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies but also by David Landes and others), Sachs really drives the point home about how close a relationship exists between geography and economic possibilities. Possibly he overstates the case somewhat - based on their geography, Egypt and Panama should have been economic empires - but Sachs truly has opened my eyes to a dimension in the question of economic development which I had barely considered before.

Africa is the chief victim of its geography, Sachs argues. In his view, the solution to Africa's problems is not really economic - it is not a matter of right monetary and fiscal policies but of hospital beds, malaria nets and AIDS treatments - readily available technocratic solutions which are missing for lack of funds only.

On the other hand, some of the chapters of theory are painful to read, particularly the one in which Sachs compares development economics to emergency medicine. His history of the world economy from time immemorial to the present is pedestrian and hardly innovative (it owes much to David Landes' superior
 The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor . Like Landes, it also owes much to Adam Smith - he is quoted in virtually every chapter of Sachs' book). But development theory - as opposed to technocratic solutions - is ridiculously over simplified (in Sachs' view, it boils down to two words - "foreign aid" pp. 247-250), as William Easterly points out in his review [...]- it's false to think that we know all the answers, and that the UN and other aid agency are sufficiently efficient to carry out the solution even if we had known them. For development economics, Easterly's own The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics is a must read.

As an advocate, Sachs's chief cause is persuading Western governments, and particularly the US, to live up to their obligation of spending 0.7 percent of each nation's GDP on aid. Sachs is an enthusiastic advocate of the Millenium Development Goals - a UN program to half poverty by 2015 - and of UN secretary general Kofi Annan (whom he calls "the world's finest stayrsman" p. 205. For a more balanced - although still highly favourable - view of Annan,
see The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power).

Sachs effectively promotes his development goals from challenges left and right; Sachs points out that African Governments are no more corrupt then other governments (pp. 312-314); that "economic freedom" does not guarantee economic growth (p.320), and that reducing Infant Mortality rates coincides with a reduction in birth rates (pp. 324-325). I was also shocked to realize how little the US spends on foreign Aid (I knew it was little, but I didn't know it proportionally less than any Western country save Italy, p. 302) and that the 400 richest Americans are 20% richer than the one hundred and sixty one million, three hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants of Botswana, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda (p. 305). Sachs convincingly argues that America often finds itself militarily involved in economically collapsing states (whether Vietnam, Lebanon, Zaire or Bosnia Herzegovina), and that indeed almost every country in which the US had to intervene suffered "state failure" (p.334). Wouldn't it be better to spend more on preventive medicine instead of risking American troops in the battlefield?

From the left, although Sachs identifies with the motives of the "Seattle Movement", he disagrees with their policy recommendations, calling for more - not less - trade, and for a large role for Multi National Corporations in reducing poverty.

Yet Sachs offers little place for dissenting views? Is the UN really this effective an instrument for poverty reduction? Is money spent in Africa really solving problems? To date, no country has been lifted from poverty via the large scale government sponsored policies Sachs promotes - instead, they have developed through mostly their own efforts with limited amounts of outside help. Africa does need more foreign aid - but maybe it needs more foreign humility, too.

By Omer Belsky on October 22, 2005

2) Much to offer (even if you don't believe in Sachs's plan to end poverty) - Sachs covers a lot of ground: a bit of world economic history, a bit of travelogue, moral arguments for foreign aid, and ... The Plan (to end world poverty by 2025).

The Plan itself, while mostly fascinating to read (with patches of exhausting technical detail), has its challenges. The biggest problem is that, while the investments he outlines will theoretically jump-start growth, it has never been tested, and the West has a long history of failed development ideas. Among other more technical points, Sachs either underestimates the inefficiencies in the aid agencies and in governments, or he overestimates the ease of overcoming them.

But the plan (and how to pay for it) makes up only four out of eighteen chapters. Here is what else awaits you: a brief economic history of the world and characterization of the rich-poor divides in the world today (chapters 1 and 2), a primer on growth economics (chapter 3), Sachs's prescription for how development economics should be practiced (chapter 4), tales of Sachs's very high level consulting in Bolivia, Poland, and Russia (chapters 5 through 7), economic histories of India and China (chapters 8 and 9), an overview of the economic and health situation in Africa (chapter 10), Sachs's views on how the West should respond to terrorism (chapter 11), The Plan (and how to pay for it (chapters 12 through 15), dispelling myths about why aid doesn't work (chapter 16), and the pep talk (chapters 17 and 18). The book can largely be read piecemeal. I particularly enjoyed chapters 1, 5 through 9, and 16.

One wearisome feature is the self-promotion. Sachs is the center of everything good that happens in this book. He has only praise for organizations he still works with (the UN and Columbia University's Earth Institute) but ample criticism for others (the World Bank, Western governments).

For more in this field, William Easterly's The Elusive Quest for Growth gives an excellent account of trends in development aid for Africa and why they haven't worked. Robert Klitgaard's Tropical Gangsters is an entertaining and insightful memoir of a World Bank economist advising in Sub-Saharan Africa.

By David Evans VINE VOICE on March 3, 2006

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