The Blog

The Gospel According to Sachs

An economist lectures the world on how to solve the problems of good and evil.

12:00 AM, May 9, 2007 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


TO THOSE of a certain temper of mind, a hope took hold in the years after the Great War that the "world community" was maturing toward a new stage of political and economic cooperation--namely socialism. Many theorists nurtured this notion and no few politicians swooned under its sway. British Labour MP John Strachey captured the mood: "It is clear that man will in the end tire of the inconvenient idiosyncrasies of loyalty and will wish to pool the cultural heritage of the human race into a world synthesis."

Since then, we've seen the "inconvenient idiosyncrasies" of the Third Reich, the Soviet Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and, of course, the rise of Islamic jihad. So much for the world synthesis: Man has not yet grown tired of his irrational loyalties. Yet the dream that men and nations will do so--and will do so with dispatch--remains too attractive to let die.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs, delivering the BBC's prestigious 2007 Reith lectures, is currently one of those keeping hope alive. His gospel is a familiar message of global cooperation--rich nations delivering money and resources to developing countries--that can defeat poverty in almost no time flat. We need merely to shed our petty rivalries and rearrange our spending priorities. "We can end poverty, at home and abroad, with the technologies and tools that we have, if we trust each other sufficiently, at home and abroad," he predicts. "The more people understand the real choices, the real consequences, and the real power that we have, with phenomenal technologies available, the more likely it is that we make the right choices."

Sachs's special burden, a supremely humane one, is to end deprivation on the African continent. He identifies four obstacles: (1) low food production; (2) disease; (3) deficient infrastructure; and (4) overpopulation. All of these problems, he claims, are "solvable with proven and relatively low-cost technologies." Each of his lectures emphasized the role of science, technology, and economic management in overcoming poverty and each is designed to challenge the conscience of the West in its relationship to the developing world.

What confounds the conscience, however, is what Sachs has failed to address in any of his talks. Despite his reputation as a globe-trotting economist, he seems to barely appreciate the complexity of problems embedded in the cultures he is so eager to rescue. He brushes aside warnings from African economists that Western aide will continue to be wasted on corrupt regimes that resist reform. He hardly mentions the social devastation caused by civil and regional wars--and, when he does, he reinterprets them as a clash of economic interests. The genocidal bloodletting in the Darfur region of Sudan, for example, is reduced in his telling to a struggle over natural resources. (Tell that to the women being raped by Arab militias who despise their non-Arab identity.) The failure of U.N. peacekeeping missions on the continent, the persistence of dictatorial rule, the massive numbers of internal refugees, the sexual trafficking of women and girls--none of it seems to count for much in the Sachs calculus.

Likewise, Sachs views the AIDS pandemic that is ravaging the continent as simply a failure of the West to commit sufficient resources to vaccines and health infrastructure. The lessons of Uganda--that profoundly destructive sexual behaviors can and must be challenged--are dismissed. The alarming and complex problem of AIDS orphans is overlooked. The role of religious communities in changing sexual mores, as well as helping at-risk populations, is completely ignored. Top-down, technical solutions--engineered in Washington, New York, Geneva, and Brussels--dominate the Sachs reform agenda. Without a hint of irony, he places the fate of Africa entirely in the hands of white, Western elites.

It all brings to mind poor Mrs. Jellyby, the Dickens character in Bleak House, with her beloved "African project." No matter what the actual results on the ground, she says, "I am more confident of success every day."

OTHERS ARE NOT SO CONFIDENT. "Corruption is the thing that will undermine any aid the most because it undermines any support back from the taxpayers. It undermines, obviously, the governments and the countries themselves," says William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University and author of The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The result, he warned recently, could be "a new wave of cynicism that will destroy the case for effective aid, that will destroy the ability of people to do effective things that work for our generation."

The Sachs view of the world, if widely endorsed by democratic leaders, could end up destroying much more than that.