Saturday, March 24, 2007

The end of poverty

The End of PovertyYou might not imagine that a dense 400-page tome of economic history and development economics would make the best holiday reading. But The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs had me turning pages as avidly as a Tom Wolfe novel whilst travelling around India.

Sachs shows how the developed world's spectacular economic growth since the industrial revolution is unprecedented in human history — and how with small efforts on debt, aid and trade linked to good governance that growth could be replicated in the Least Developed Countries whose one billion citizens live in abject poverty. Sachs shares his experience helping Bolivia, Poland, Russia, China, India and many African nations overcome obstacles of geography such as tropical disease, lack of navigable rivers and coastlines, and inadequate water supplies. He also looks at the cultural barriers, geopolitics, governance failures, fiscal traps and lack of innovation that all hold back countries' growth.

From all of this economic theory and practice, Sachs describes a simple step-by-step plan by which extreme poverty could be ended by 2025. Debt cancellation and aid linked to good governance requirements would allow developing countries to make the investments in infrastructure, healthcare and education necessary for them to move successfully up the development ladder in the same manner as the Asian tigers during the last 30 years. The 0.7% of GDP already promised by rich nations in development aid would be entirely sufficient to achieve this goal. Elimination of tariff barriers and export subsidies by the US and EU would give the developing world fair access to American and European markets, as the Doha round of trade talks is struggling to agree. Flexibility in intellectual property rules, as emphasised by the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health, would allow the technology transfer essential to healthcare and innovation in developing nations.

I could not agree more with Sachs that a failure by the developed world to live up to these promises would be both a moral obscenity, and extremely short-sighted given their benefits to global security and stability. He concludes:

As global prosperity has accelerated in the past two centuries, each generation has been called upon to meet new challenges in extending the possibilities of human well-being. Some have faced the harrowing challenge of defending reason itself against the hysterias and mass brutalities of communism, fascism, and other totalitarianisms of the twentieth century. Others have been blessed with the opportunity to expand the ambit of human freedom and reason, spared from war and equipped with increasingly powerful tools to improve the human condition. Our own generation lives with a precarious peace, one threatened both by terrorism and the overly militaristic response of the United States, but a peace on which we can build if we can sustain it. Ending poverty is the great opportunity of our time, a commitment that would not only relieve massive suffering and spread economic well-being, but would also promote the other Enlightenment objectives of democracy, global security, and the advance of science.

This magnificent and moving book is an essential read for anyone concerned with ending the horrendous threats of starvation and disease that stalk the world's billion poorest citizens.

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