Rethinking Jeffrey Sachs and the “Big Five”: New Proposals for the End of Poverty

Jeffrey Sachs has become something of a force in international development circles over the past decade.  As special advisor to the UN’s Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, former director of the UN’s Millennium Development Project, and a decorated economist at Columbia University, Sachs certainly has much to brag about.  The publication of his runaway bestseller, The End of Poverty, even bagged him his second showing on Time‘s list of the world’s top 100 most influential people.

In 2005 Sachs also published a synopsis of his core ideas in a Time Magazine article titled as boldly as his book: “The End of Poverty.”  Beautifully written, this piece still stands as one of the best distillations of his policy proposals to date.  But behind the compelling rhetoric — much of which is spot on — some of his basic assumptions about Africa’s poverty warrant serious interrogation.

But first, the good.  Sachs opens by offering a tragic run-down of African poverty statistics, a litany of emergencies that can’t but prick our consciences.  He does well to sound the alarm, for there is indeed an emergency.  Moreover, Sachs dismisses outright the all too common claim that we should blame Africa’s problems on laziness and corruption.  He also recognizes the troubling legacies of colonial rule and the Cold War and notes that debts imposed by Western “development” agencies continue to shackle African economies by draining government coffers.

Strangely enough, though, Sachs doesn’t let these insights about ongoing political and economic plunder inform the solutions that he proposes for Africa’s poverty.  Instead, he calls on Western governments to assume the role of savior by marshalling sufficient aid to help Africans up the “ladder of development.”  This strikes me as ironic.  How strange that Westerners so easily embrace the role of savior when so much of the twentieth century has seen the West in the role of plunderer!  The problem here is that Sachs calls on us to think within a paradigm of aid when we should be thinking within a paradigm of justice.

Sachs’ proposals for the end of poverty focus on beefing up and streamlining aid by encouraging Western governments to keep their promises of charity.  He claims that Africa needs just a paltry 0.7% of US GDP in aid to eliminate extreme poverty in Africa.  This money would go to what Sachs calls the “Big Five” of African development interventions:

  1. Boosting agriculture with new technologies, fertilizers, and pesticides.
  2. Improving basic health through antimalarial bednets and essential medicines.
  3. Investing in education through free school meals and expanded vocational training.
  4. Bringing power to villages for water pumps, grain mills, and school computers.
  5. Providing clean water and sanitation to prevent disease.

Sachs holds that these interventions would provide the necessary conditions that Africa requires to overcome structural poverty and get onto the first rung of the “development ladder.”  But while no one would disagree that his proposals are important and well-intentioned, they obscure far more than they reveal about the reasons for Africa’s poverty.  Working within his charity paradigm, Sachs self-consciously avoids discussing politics today (notwithstanding his recognition of colonial history), let alone the idea that the global political economy, the root cause, must be structurally transformed.  This perspective allows him to present Africa’s poverty as a consequence of its “unlucky” inheritance of an unkind climate conducive to the spread of tropical diseases.  But the poverty of Africa is no more “natural” than is the wealth of the West; the two are intimately interconnected.  The problem is not that Africans cannot reach the first rung of the development ladder themselves; the problem is that they are actively prevented from doing so.  For more than a century Africa has been and continues to be purposefully underdeveloped.

As part of his work with the Millennium Development Project, Sachs sought to discover the reasons for Africa’s poverty by visiting rural villages where he personally witnessed the ravages of hunger, AIDS, and malaria up close in the lives of everyday people.  His experience with poor farmers and undernourished children led him to think up his “Big Five” solutions.  However, his choice of fieldsites confined him to only one side of the cause-effect equation: the villagers taught him much about the effects of structural poverty but little about its causes.  Instead of visiting villages, he should have dropped in on the boardrooms of in-country multinational corporations, where he could have channeled his charitable energies into exposing the loopholes in their mineral contracts and demanding that they restructure their wage standards.  Take the oil-rich Niger Delta, for example.  70% of Nigerians in the region live in extreme poverty, subsisting on less than a dollar a day.  By contrast, the starting salary for a Chevron engineer in the area tops $175,000, and the company has walked away with millions in revenue already.  In the context of such vicious plunder, Sachs’ plan to save dying Africans by handing out bednets and fertilizers amounts to a slap in the face.

Instances like this can be multiplied ad nauseum.  Take the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Canadian negotiators recently convinced the DRC government to barter away mineral concessions worth some $120 billion to China in exchange for a paltry $6 billion of infrastructural development.  Why are the Congolese people so desperately poor when they’re literally sitting on a goldmine?  Because — as in the days of old European colonialism — their mineral profits are being siphoned by first-world corporations that can get away without paying them the real price of the commodities they extract or the labor that digs them up.  Africans don’t need aid, they need fairer trade arrangements.

But back to Sachs.  Let’s just imagine for a moment that his dream came true, and the US did in fact commit to giving 0.7% of its GDP in aid for education, healthcare, agriculture, and so on.  That would be wonderful indeed.  But it wouldn’t stop the US, Europe, and China from plundering many times more than that amount in artificially cheap African labor and resources each year.  In effect, then, Sachs’ plan means dispensing bandaids with one hand and vicious beatings with the other.  This strategy will almost inevitably leave Africans shackled to their poverty for centuries to come, bednets or no bednets.

According to Sachs, the international donor community should be thinking “round-the-clock” about how to roll out his “Big Five” interventions all across Africa.  But with the broader context of Africa’s plight in mind, perhaps they should instead be thinking round-the-clock about how to halt the plunder of Africa’s resources by Western corporations and government actors.  And that’s something they can do without ever leaving their shores.  In terms of concrete strategies, here are five alternative proposals for ending poverty in Africa.

1) Forgive debt without conditions.  The history of African indebtedness to Western banks is deeply troubling.  After having been ravaged by colonial mis-development for nearly a century, newly independent African nations desperate for funds sought aid from the World Bank and the IMF under neoliberal conditionalities that suffocated their economies.  Today, most African countries spend vastly more of their budgets on servicing the interest on their debts than they do on healthcare and education, for example.  In a context of relentless debt, aid simply makes no sense.

2) Protect the resource commons.  The rich natural resources and minerals of each African country should be considered the common property of its citizens.  Multinational corporations that exploit these resources should be made to give back a fair share of revenues according to publicly transparent and democratically ratified contracts and concessions.  Models of this exist already: the US state of Alaska, for example, owns all its natural resources and distributes extraction revenues through rural development initiatives and annual checks to each citizen.  The yield from fairer revenue sharing would be many times more than the aid that Africa gets today.

3.) Install an international minimum wage law.  Multinational corporations that seek cheap and abundant African labor should be made to pay wages pegged to the cost of local basic living standards.  This should be recognized as a matter of fundamental human rights.  The US and Europe expect companies to pay their citizens minimum wages; why should they not insist on the same treatment for Africans?  If such a law were extended internationally, this would eliminate the “race to the bottom” effect that comes from seeking competitive advantage in countries that allow for easy labor exploitation.

4.) Democratize international institutions.  The World Trade Organization is controlled almost entirely by first-world economies whose representatives hold all the bargaining power in the negotiation of trade agreements, most of which are concluded in closed rooms from which representatives from developing nations are barred.  If my conversations with Africans have yielded one refrain, it’s that they would prefer a fair voice at the WTO over any amount of Western aid.  The West casts itself as the messiah of democracy to the rest of the world; it’s time to put the rhetoric into action.  The same goes for the United Nations, where powerful countries hold disproportionate decision-making power and exercise veto rights over the wishes of the General Assembly.  Africans deserve the right to participate meaningfully in the decisions made by international institutions.

5.) Reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  While first-world economies such as the United States and China pump the overwhelming majority of the world’s carbon emissions into the atmosphere, it is underdeveloped countries that bear the brunt of the burden of climate change.  Rising tides, drought, and desertification are responsible for much of Africa’s poverty today.  First-world economies should have to bear the real costs of their industrialization through compensation to those who suffer its effects.   This is not a matter of aid, but of justice, and an important first step in creating disincentives for pollution.  There is nothing “natural” about the hostile climates that many Africans have been faced with recently; desertification and drought can be stopped.

Implementing these changes would require enormous political will and moral courage.  After all, the sort of solutions I’ve proposed would run up against Western economic interests and would most likely cut into the profits of those who presently pride themselves on their philanthropy. 

I have argued here for a shift from a paradigm of aid to a paradigm of justice.  No one has captured this sentiment better than Frantz Fanon, one of Africa’s greatest intellectuals.  On the question of aid, he offers the following very pointed words:

Colonialism and imperialism have not settled their debt to us once they have withdrawn their flag and their police force from our territories. . . .  The wealth of the imperialist nations is also our wealth. . . .  Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.  The riches which are choking it are those plundered from the underdeveloped peoples. . . .  So we will not accept aid for the underdeveloped countries as “charity”.  Such aid must be considered the final stage of a dual consciousness — the consciousness of the colonized that it is their due, and the consciousness of the capitalist powers that effectively they must pay up.

Jason Hickel is an instructor as well as a doctoral candidate at the Department of Anthropology of University of Virginia.

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