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'Common Wealth' author proposes saving world by changing it

Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute and renowned economist, likes to think big, and his newest book is the product of that penchant. Readers must decide, though, whether Sachs' grandiose ideas are likely to yield similar results.

Common Wealth is billed as a blueprint for constructing a better global future. Sachs' last book, The End of Poverty, tackled an immense topic. His latest tome takes on an even more ambitious one: how to save the world.

"The defining challenge of the twenty-first century," Sachs writes, "will be to face the reality that humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet." He notes that this realization requires a whole-cloth revision of our prevailing social, economic and political philosophies.

For Sachs, that means bypassing our current, statist perspective on world affairs and embracing a new one in which national interests and sovereignty are less important than global initiatives and regulations.

The Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs — eight global targets that the United Nations, in 2000, agreed to meet by 2015 — are therefore held aloft in Common Wealth as an example of the cooperation that should pervade international dealings. Though the positive spirit of MDGs is heartening, their slim chances for success are not.

Take, for example, this goal: halving the number of people in extreme poverty, who live on less than a dollar a day. Yet the Economist notes that "only 57 out of 163 developing countries have counted the poor more than once since 1990. Ninety-two have not counted them at all."

And the MDGs are not the first of their kind, either. One goal, for instance, calls for halving the number of people who do not have access to safe water. In 1977, though, the United Nations pledged safe drinking water by the end of the 1980s for 100 percent of the world's people. In 1990, the United Nations renewed its 1977 promise but gave itself until 2000 to fulfill it. And here we are, with 2015 as the new target date to accomplish only half of what was supposed to be finished 18 years ago.

These types of immense, international aspirations and organizations are crippled by an unwillingness to acknowledge their own limitations. Common Wealth, too, does not give full consideration to the drawbacks of such overweening schemes, or its own.

When it comes to international development, nations matter. Minutiae matter.

William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University and author of the 2006 book The White Man's Burden, argues that all-encompassing aid programs are fine for multinational bureaucracies but more often than not are ineffective at producing tangible benefits for those who need them.

A better idea, according to Easterly, "is to search for small improvements, then brutally scrutinize and test whether the poor got what they wanted and were better off, and then repeat the process."

Organizations such as the United Nations are notoriously bad at doing this (with some exceptions), in part because programs like the MDGs are burgeoning and diffuse and in part because nobody at the United Nations is truly accountable for results.

The accountability bit is a piece that Sachs doesn't address seriously. How will a new global community, one that operates under the guidance of U.N.-like mandates, force sovereign nations to abide by their commitments? Why will booming countries like China, for instance, willingly halt their economic progress to cut down carbon emissions?

"Governments can be shamed into doing the right thing but only if the global citizenry is paying attention, understands the stakes, cares about the outcomes, and has the organizational heft to take on the shirkers," Sachs answers.

That's a heck of a lot of "ifs." But supposing those conditions are in place, is it really true that nations can be "shamed" into changing their bad habits?

Our present situation suggests it isn't. China brutally suppresses its own people, has perpetuated horrors in Tibet and has no compunction against abetting the Sudanese regime that currently commits domestic genocide. These actions are far more reprehensible than not sequestering CO2, yet the Chinese government shows no sign of halting them. Brushing international protests against its human rights record aside, Beijing blithely prepares to host the Olympics this summer.

This is the harsh world that Sachs' philosophies can't address — one in which international operators look out for their own interests and rarely, if ever, are convinced to devote more than a few resources to pursuit of the common good. Any worthwhile philosophy of international development will need to work in this flawed world, not against it.

Liam Julian is a St. Petersburg native and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Common Wealth: Economics

for a Crowded Planet

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

Penguin Press, 400 pages, $27.95

More reviews

For additional book reviews, see Pages 9 and 10 of today's Latitudes section.

'Common Wealth' author proposes saving world by changing it 05/03/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 1:29pm]
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