Books: Plans of a serious dreamer

Jeffrey Sachs proposes that special global funds be set up to eradicate rampant poverty, disease and unsustainable production. It's a vital read, says DeAnne Julius.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This is a big book by any measure. Common Wealth is full of big ideas and is written by a big star in the constellation of gurus. It lays out global problems in dramatic language. It paints dire scenarios for the world if we carry on with business-as-usual. It proposes grand solutions - seven global funds - and then, like a skilled salesman, shows that these require only a few budgetary shifts and a concerted political effort. It deserves to be read by all those who worry about the sustainability of the world's current high-growth trajectory.

Jeff Sachs offers both diagnosis and treatment. But how persuasive are his arguments? And will the book have an impact on the policy-makers and political activists who are his targeted change-makers?

The first third of the book is the least interesting or persuasive. There's little new in the chapters on global warming, water shortages or biodiversity for those who follow these issues. And his simplistic economic models, broadbrush treatment of complex problems and polemical approach will put off the critical reader.

For the newcomer to these issues, however, Sachs highlights the salient points and provides clues to where technological solutions may lie - for example, carbon capture. He cites past successful international interventions, such as the Ozone Convention's work in ridding the world of harmful CFCs.

Sachs is at his strongest in dealing with the global problem of extreme poverty and its relation to environmental stress. His wide experience in developing countries and the analyses in his previous book, The End of Poverty (Allen Lane, 2005), provide a compelling case for his central conclusion: that there's hope for shared prosperity based on increased international funding for technology to overcome local ecological constraints.

Geography is not destiny, but he shows how the poorest countries and many failed states have erratic rains, few rivers, poor soils, no access to ports, etc. They are locked in the poverty trap of subsistence farming with no margin for saving or taxation, leading to weak governments, corruption and black markets. These countries can only progress to a commercial economy with a jump-start of international help to put in place infrastructures for self-sustaining growth.

Sachs recognises that such support is a necessary but not sufficient condition for developmental progress. In the Millennium Village Project, which he directed for the UN, impoverished villages in Africa were helped by a five-year scheme of multi-sector investments of roughly $110 per villager, per year. But clear goals required investment in kind from the villagers and careful monitoring of results. These were impressive: higher agricultural yields, expanded food production, a jump in school attendance and greatly reduced disease. Scaling up such programmes is now the challenge - for both funding and local institutional capabilities.

Sachs is clearly no fan of the Bush administration, nor of the policies of past Republican presidents on foreign aid, support for UN agencies, limited funding for birth-control projects and expanded military spending. Whether or not one agrees with his politics, he makes telling, if crude, comparisons - eg, 'a fully comprehensive malaria control program for all of sub-Saharan Africa ... would require ... less than two days of Pentagon spending'. Yet it would be no bad thing for the world if the incoming president read the book.

The final chapters sketch out the path to mobilising global efforts to address the challenges. Sachs acknowedges that these are more political than economic. In that sense, the book's subtitle, Economics for a crowded planet, is misleading; this is really a book about politics.

He recommends a process that would build on the millennium promises and involve scientists, activists, businesses, private foundations, politicians and concerned citizens around the world. Having agreed the goals, the first stage is to mobilise science around the solutions. The second is to put in place market incentives and private-foundation funding to encourage businesses, innovators and social entrepreneurs to devise practical solutions. The third stage is to scale these up to apply them globally by establishing high-level funds targeted at the key millennium promises.

This approach has been pioneered by the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Sachs suggests that six more funds, together costing just 2%-3% of the rich world's GDP, would do the trick. A snip or a Utopian dream? Probably the latter, but Sachs is a serious dreamer, and this is a serious book that deserves to be widely read and debated. Common Wealth: Economics for a crowded planet; Jeffrey D Sachs; Allen Lane £22.00

- DeAnne Julius is chairman of Chatham House.

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