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Curing Poverty
Alex Steffen, 8 Nov 04

Jeffrey Sachs is a totally worldchanging sort of guy: big into democracy, sustainability, technology and the needs of the billions on this planet who are in dire circumstances.

Today's NYT has a great, if not all that sympathetic, profile of Sachs and his latest project, the elimination of poverty, worldwide:

Sachs is nothing if not a big thinker. And in July, the renowned macroeconomist and special adviser to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan was in Ethiopia on a world tour advancing his most ambitious project yet: the elimination of global poverty. While others tinker with incremental steps, Sachs has no patience for the small scale. Ethiopia and sub-Saharan Africa have slid deeper into poverty in the last 20 years, and whereas many economists stress the failures of local leadership, Sachs is telling a different story. In his version, Africa, through no fault of its own, is trapped. Held back by geographical impediments like climate, disease and isolation, it cannot lift itself out of poverty. What Africa needs, then, is not more scolding from the West. It needs a ''big push'' -- a flood of foreign aid -- to boost its prospects and carry it into the developed world.

There are plenty of voices (especially neo-conservative ones) arguing that aid is wrong-headed, inefficient, even culturally imperialistic. But I suspect worldchangers everywhere need to ask themselves a simple question: What if Sachs is right? What if real poverty is something we can fix?

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Economists often complain about "lack of demand" in poor countries. Why don't we give _everybody_ on the planet 25 cents a day citizen's income? Maybe financed by a Tobin Tax (minute percentage of foreign currency transactions). I'm not sure Africa needs more of the "aid" we've given them so far...
-- John

Posted by: John Norris on 8 Nov 04

Is there anything more frightening than a grinning economist, offering help?

Fifty years of development, rife with "big ideas," have failed. Who does this failure hurt? Certainly not people like Sachs nor the institutions (be they Western or developing world) that backs such crusades. It hurts people on the ground. Ah but Sachs has no patience for "the small scale" which is unfortunately where most of the people he wants so grandiosely to help reside.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 8 Nov 04

Speaking of small changes that make a big impact, mechanical engineer Amy Smith won the MacArthur genius award for her project to develop clean and cheap cooking fuels for the Third World and other ideas designed to be practical and make the Third World a more ecologically safe place to live.

Maybe both kinds of help are valuable - people like Sachs who come up with grand schemes to improve the standard of living in the Third World, and people like Smith who help improve lives more directly.

Posted by: salas on 8 Nov 04

I think what works are small scale projects, not massive aid. Massive aid offers too much opportunity for fraud and attracts the wrong elements. Small scale aid, loans to those starting businesses, direct assistance to provide families with their own livestock, education programs, arts and craft development and assistance in international sales of those crafts, fair trade programs for farmer's crops, those are what works.

Ask people what they need, as individuals, to thrive. Then help them get it.

Posted by: donna on 8 Nov 04

In simple terms what happened with africa is killing with kindness and compassion.

Before the un and aid missions you had the hope that at least after the horror of war and famine there would be a stable peace and there would be plenty. There would be a time to recover and move on.

Now "kindness" has forced africa into a perpetual twilight hour. Caught on the edge of the storm and never allowed to ride through it into the dawn.

Which is the cruelty? Letting the darkness fall or dangling an entire people before it insisting you can "someday somehow" pull them back.

Frankly if you had been a little less preocupied with yourselves and a little more logical you would have noticed its long since been the case that fewer people would have died and less suffering would have come if you had just shut the hell up and stayed out of it and waited for the dawn before tring to slow down the creep toward war and famine.

Posted by: wintermane on 8 Nov 04

Now "kindness" has forced africa into a perpetual twilight hour. Caught on the edge of the storm and never allowed to ride through it into the dawn.

Uhh.. So, wintermane, I guess you think that the world community was doing Africa a favor by letting tens of thousands be summarily slaughtered in Rwanda and the Sudan.

Somehow I don't agree. But even if your passage doesn't make sense as policy, it's eloquent poetry.

Posted by: salas on 8 Nov 04

Do you realy think we are strong enough to pull all of africa back?

We cant just pull some of it we would have to haul ALL of africa back and put it into a stable sustained peace.

Considering we cant manage that for downtown la I dont see us doing it for a continent do you?

And what the heck do you expect is going to happen when as must happen america falls and the world bank falls as the world econ crumbles away due to one of any number of disasters GARRANTEED to hit us this century?

Not 1 not 2 prolly 5 or more game over world wide disasters are going to happen in our lifetime and my hope is for gods sakes dont let africa get too many nukes and too many germs and chems before the first one hits.

I dont want to talk to my great grandkid 80 years from now and say yes I remember when there was life on the african continent and it didnt glow bright enough to light the moon.. But the way things are going thats exactly what im gona be doing!

I just hope my grandkid doesnt have 6 arms and 3 eyes. Or if he does hes the smartest 6 arm 3 eyed kid on the block.

Posted by: wintermane on 8 Nov 04

Actually it wouldn't cost that much money to educate, provide basic health care, and clean water to everyone in the world.

That is why the world's governments agreed to try and achieve the Millenium Devolpment Goals (

Economists have estimated less than 1% of Gross World Product for a few decades, after which total GWP would be higher than w/o the investment in people.

Politically and socially its more difficult to do, but people - like Sachs, but certainly not just him - are working on it.

I believe that not only is meeting the Millennium Development Goals possible, but doing much better is possible.

The world needs more healthy better educated people. Such people are more able to build green prosperous societies that can cope with stress and surprise.

Posted by: Garry Peterson on 8 Nov 04

We dont have a couple decades.

Posted by: wintermane on 8 Nov 04

Let me ask you a question. When do you see global warming doing its nasty work on africa and what do expect will come of it?

Do you expect the money will keep pouring in if the world econ breaks down for a time and dont you expect it to do so?

So depending on your alswers what bits of help can we give the poor that cant be taken away again? Education is one thats for sure.

What else is there we can give that will stay put long enough even if we cant?

Posted by: wintermane on 9 Nov 04

Ummm perhaps we ought to simply stop propping up corrupt dictators in Africa and assasinating democratically elected leaders? No? Too obvious?

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 10 Nov 04



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