Jeffrey Sachs Misses Chance for a Call to Arms

Sachs is a professor of Economics and director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University.By Blake S. Neff

In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ Himself declares that the poor will always be with us. Ever since, people of every belief system and ideological stripe have been working to prove otherwise. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, and perhaps the best side-effect of Jim Kim’s presidency is increased enthusiasm for the prospect of America’s brightest working to improve the world.

This growing mentality that America’s future leaders have a role to play in eliminating the scourge of poverty was the driving force behind the October 13th lecture “Ending Poverty in Our Generation: Still Time if We Try,” presented by Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University.

Sachs first rose to prominence around the end of the Cold War as a proponent of so-called economic “shock therapy,” which was used by formerly Communist states to rapidly liberalize their economies and kickstart growth. By 1994, publications like Time were heralding him as among the most important and influential economists in the world. 

Since then, though, Sachs has shifted his focus from post-Communist economic policy towards the more general matter of global economic development and poverty alleviation.  Since 2005, he has worked as both a professor and as the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia.

Speaking to a packed Silsby 213 and a packed Rockefeller 3, Sachs opened his lecture by framing the situation. In speaking about poverty, he would not be referring to the unfortunate but decidedly survivable poverty that exists in the developed world, nor would he focus on countries like Brazil or Mexico which are not prosperous but still have functioning and generally growing economies. Instead, Sachs honed in on the true poor of the world, those living in conditions where they cannot eat reliably, have no medical care, and so forth. Sachs claimed that the world has developed something of a blind spot for this type of poverty, preferring to believe it doesn’t exist. In an astute reference to America’s populist political culture, he pointed out that by listening to either party one might conclude that America is nothing but a giant middle class and that global poverty simply doesn’t exist.

According to Sachs, in the world’s least developed nations poverty has become entrenched due to the creation of a “cycle of poverty” from which individuals cannot escape. Subsistence farmers are forced to put all their resources into the simple matter of survival, and are actually falling short, leading to a decline in living standards. Since no economic surplus is produced year to year, there is nothing which subsistence farmers can reinvest in order to achieve economic growth. With populations still rising and the economy not growing, the cycle simply becomes worse as time passes.

To serve as an example of the entrenched poverty he hopes to eradicate, Sachs focused on a village in the “drylands” of northern Ethiopia. Climate change and population growth to the south have dried up the village’s river and led to the depletion of limited groundwater. Malnourishment is almost universal, the soil is little more than rock, and in general life quite readily conforms to the image of a “sub-subsistence” lifestyle that Sachs claims is the hallmark of a poverty cycle.

Of course, Sachs didn’t come to Dartmouth to explain how terrible poverty is, but instead to explain how it may be remedied. Sachs outlined a plan in which targeted aid towards so-called “Millennium Villages” is used to end the cycle of poverty in a localized area. The plan is to use foreign aid and expertise to construct schools, implement modern agriculture, and improve health within a single community until it has developed to the point at which it can earn a production surplus to reinvest in itself. The key threshold to Sachs is the point at which farmers can buy fertilizer for their next crop and still have money left over, meaning that they are no longer using all of their resources for bare subsistence. 

The plan Sachs proposes deserves to be commended primarily for its specificity, which makes the fulfillment of planned goals far more straightforward. Instead of handing millions to a government in a lump sum for “agricultural aid,” Sachs’s approach buys fertilizer for a particular community. In addition to making goals far clearer, this method also reduces the room for corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, and the lack of impact which can be the result of dispersing a small amount of aid over a very wide area.

Sachs also explained how this method of targeted aid could be used to create economic growth for an entire country. Once a community begins to produce a surplus and grow, he said, its members naturally start investing in other areas, allowing economic growth to spread. Once this process begins, the free market can take its course and poor nations will no longer be dependent on Western aid.

Late in the lecture and while taking questions, Sachs defended his proposal from various criticisms. To his credit, he handily refuted any concerns about the use of “unsustainable” fertilizers for agriculture, pointing out that nitrogen fertilizers are essential for Africa to feed itself and are used by every developed economy on the planet.  

Sachs also defended the need for aid by objecting to the frequent shifting of blame onto impoverished countries, arguing that many poor and stagnant nations are no more corrupt than growing ones. He compared Bolivia to Vietnam, making the point that Bolivia is less corrupt but is held back thanks to being a mountainous, landlocked state. Corruption may be minor or severe, he said, but by itself does not determine if a country can grow or not.

Overall, Sachs presented a sound outline for how poverty may be reversed in Africa and other desperately poor regions, but the lecture was not without its flaws. 

The greatest one emerged from his contention that Africa’s poor governance and military strife are the result of poverty rather than the causes of it, and can therefore be eliminated simply through aid. While he has the origins of these problems right to a degree, it is surprising that Sachs does not realize that his cycle of poverty can be used to describe other phenomena as well. Poverty may beget civil war, but civil war produces and entrenches human misery like few other forces, and it is not precisely clear how targeted aid could build up a nation like Somalia which has no stable government and is dominated by feuding warlords.

In addition to this overconfidence, it was rather disappointing when late in the lecture Sachs began making generic attacks on government policy and discussed how a change in government policy was the key to eliminating poverty. 

He brought up the frequently criticized fact that the U.S. does not meet the UN’s target level of spending .7% of GNP on aid, completely ignoring how the American security blanket allows European states the luxury of spending on aid instead of militaries. He also blasted the Afghanistan war, arguing that the billions spent there every year are “not helping anybody,” apparently making the implicit argument that the U.S. would be better off sending the Taliban aid checks rather than fighting them. While one may criticize the wisdom of the Afghan war, it was rather disconcerting to see one of the world’s leading thinkers so casually dismiss the entire enterprise as futile or even counterproductive.

By far the biggest problem with this line of argument, though, is that even if Sachs’s criticism of government priorities is completely correct, it’s a rather useless point to bring up when addressing college students. While there are almost certainly future leaders among us, current Dartmouth students are not able to change government policy. Sachs would have done far better to provide specific examples about how individuals could help drive his mission. Just as an example, he could have suggested cutting one’s spending by a dollar a day, the same amount those in extreme poverty need to live on, and donating that saved money to African relief. 

By putting the onus on the government to fix the problem, Sachs stepped into the trap of “raising awareness,” where he made a compelling case for a cause but didn’t make it the responsibility of each person there to do something. This is quite unfortunate, since Americans have a very charitable spirit, and just like with his Millennium Villages, the seed of a few people giving money and spreading the word could grow into a mighty tree with time. The lecture’s title said that the world could eliminate poverty if we try, and it is to the great we of the American people that Sachs should directly address his plea.

Despite this criticism, it is impossible to find fault with Sachs’s intentions. He is a great thinker using his abilities to their utmost in the pursuit of eliminating one of mankind’s most intractable problems. However, it would be to the benefit of everybody if he could in the future adjust his message into a call for personal action that wins people’s hearts as well as their heads.