Friday, February 05, 2010

Book #1: The End of Poverty

I set a goal of reading as many books as possible this year, grammar textbooks or books with vivid illustrations notwithstanding. I started with the lofty goal of finishing War and Peace, which I bought six years ago in that heady year of 2004, when I recounted every (mostly noxious) movie I saw that year.

At any rate, the first book I finished was Jeffrey Sachs' The End of Poverty. I bought it Sunday and finished it Wednesday, thanks to its many non-vivid illustrations, mostly data plots and bar graphs, as well as Sachs' tendency to write well. The End of Poverty gives specific, tangible explanations for the occurrence of what Sachs calls extreme poverty, the inability to secure the necessities of life It also provides tangible suggestions for the elimination of extreme poverty.

I'm not qualified to judge the efficacy of his proposals for ending poverty in, say, Malawi. However, the approach is a strong one. Sachs believes that extreme poverty can be ended if wealthy countries commit to giving 0.7% of their GDP in a thoughtful way for a number of years. The money would be used for public health, infrastructure, and education, allowing the poorest in the world to join the international economy in the way coastal China, southern India and Indonesia have managed.

He takes an overly benign view of poor countries. While countries like China and Bangladesh rightfully receive praise for reducing poverty through international trade, Sachs doesn't urge sub-Saharan countries to try and do the same in some way, portraying them almost entirely as passive objects. Altogether, the book and the ideas within it are very strong, far more than the emotionally-charged appeals that are common in this topic.

There were a few interesting ideas in the book that were new to me. First, Sachs considers the economic growth of several regions over the past two centuries. In 1820, the US was three times as rich as Africa. Africa has grown by about 0.7% a year since then. America has grown about twice that fast on average. That growth, over time, has made America about 25 times as rich as Africa.

Second, by the time emerging economies such as India or China make news for being emerging economies with scorching-fast growth, the heavy lifting is already done. China grew at over 10% a year for much of the '80s and '90s before stabilizing these days at around 7-8%. Most of the heavy lifting in terms of the eradication of poverty was already done by the time we started raving about China's rise as a supwerpower.

Third, the power of geography in explaining poverty, as well as wealth, is immense. Sachs notes that while Americans (and Canadians) consider their wealth to be the result of their own virtue, they inherited state-of-the-art infrastructure and political institutions from Britain. As well, they live in a temperate land with vast natural resources. Contrast that with a place like Kyrgyzstan, which is landlocked, heavily mountainous and benefited from decades of Soviet rule.


sofia said...

it sounds like this is from the perspective of a pure economist - totally detached from externalities, mathematical, and based on the current constraints of the capitalist system. we need to be curbing growth, not encouraging countries who still have a chance to suffer from western over-consumption. those places would have a better chance of sustainable living by focusing on local autonomy, and agricultural lifestyles. capitalism is dying.

sofia said...

i also think it would be good to look into literature from the perspective of environmental economists. i highly recommend pentti linkola's "can life prevail"!! it would be very pertinent to this post. it is radical, but very good "shock therapy" for adjusting to the extreme solutions we need to curb consumption.

andré said...

Speaking of shock therapy, "The Shock Doctrine" is also a good read.

Justin Kraus said...

Sachs is smart. For another development guy on the opposite end of the spectrum, who is also very smart, pick up William Easterly's "White Man's Burden."

havediplomawilltravel said...

I almost picked up this book at a used book store last week.
It would be interesting for you to read "Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa" now. I haven't read it, but I saw her speak on TVO and she made some pretty valid points.
Might be an interesting read...
Speaking of books, I'm finishing Target North Korea. Pretty interesting perspective on the War and the "rogue state's" current mind frame. If you see it somewhere for cheap, you should pick it up (if you haven't read something like that before).