Must the poor be with us always? Probably. But there are degrees of have-notness, and, argues UN special advisor Sachs, “extreme poverty can be ended not in the time of our grandchildren, but in our time.”
The poor, even the one billion poorest of them, are not necessarily fated to be so. In early modern times, much of the world lived at much the same economic level, which explains why European explorers could have been impressed by the sumptuousness of places such as Timbuktu and Tenochtitlan. But after 1800, writes Sachs, “both population and per capita income came unstuck, soaring at rates never before seen or even imagined.” The West outstripped the rest of the world over the space of the next 200 years, creating a vast gulf between rich and poor nations, the product of uneven patterns of growth that have many causes. Some of them are social and political; it is difficult, for instance, to foster growth when corrupt officials skim the cream, ethnic hatreds mark one group or another as outcast, and people reproduce too quickly. Some of them are also geographic; farming on exhausted soil and mining tailings are recipes for disaster. (“Americans,” Sachs exhorts, “forget that they inherited a vast continent rich in natural resources.”) Taking issue with international-development economists concerned mostly with capital and credit formation, Sachs urges an account of poverty that takes a multifaceted view of the kinds of capital the poor lack (health, nutrition, infrastructure, biodiversity, an impartial judiciary, access to knowledge, and so forth). While agreeing with those economists that private initiatives are generally more effective than state programs, Sachs also proposes a many-pronged, needs-based attack on the worst extremes of poverty that requires, yes, the rich to help the poor, but that is eminently practical and minimally pipe-dreamy—and that, he notes in passing, would help restore the reputation of the US and the usefulness of the UN in the world.
A solid, reasonable argument in which the dismal science offers a brightening prospect for the world’s poor.