A Tale of Two Poverties: Sachs versus the world

by on 2013-10-04 in Duck- 7 Comments

Interpreting evidence related to poverty and development is never straightforward. Neo-liberal supporters of free market economics tend to point to economic growth as evidence that global inequality is stabilising, while those “closer to the ground” often point out the limitations of economic measurements and encourage a broader understanding of the everyday signs of exploitation and inequality in countries around the world- classic Development Studies 101. Evidence of this sustained divide between those who talk about poverty and those who seek to understand global economic inequality can seen by contrasting a recent NYT opinion piece by Jeffrey Sachs and an extensive research report on poverty. Sachs (primarily focused on the continent of Africa) declares that poverty is ending…soon; while a broader report published 24 hours later found that “economic growth is not helping Africa’s poor.” It seems almost unbelievable that such disparate accounts of “the developing world” can be printed within a 48 hour period. Poverty is ending, poverty is deepening, the market will save Africa, the market has destroyed Africa. With such contrasting messages it is no wonder that the general public (particularly students trying to understand ‘development’) can get confused.

In his op ed Sachs provides us a generalised yet messianic prediction about the future of poverty. In classic Sachs lala land form, he declares that when it comes to reducing poverty “the evidence is on the side of the optimists.” Poverty is on the way out…soon… hallelujah and praise to the free market. He claims that the two divine signs of this shift are 1. the decrease in households living below the extreme-poverty line; and 2. evidence of economic growth (from 2.3% per year in 1990-2000 to 5.7 during 2000-2010).

The results of an Afrobarometer survey released this Tuesday call Sachs prediction into question. The survey found that “even at a time when…countries are reporting impressive economic gains” most Africans are facing challenges meeting their basic daily needs. The survey discusses the reality of “lived” poverty, including continued problems with infrastructure and access to health and education. While Sachs puts his faith in the market economy, research indicates that “the market” does not provide motivation to invest in key areas that improve people’s everyday lives. Specifically, the report found that “people were poorer in areas where government spending on basic infrastructure lagged.”

There is nothing new about this development double-speak, but it is particularly frustrating that Sachs delusional celebratory piece was published alongside, yet ignorant of, such extensive and important research on inequality.

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7 CommentsAdd yours

  • RobW - 2013-10-04

    What’s troubling is that you don’t critique Sachs so much as attack him. Phrases like “Sachs lala land form” do not help readers here understand the flaws of his “extensive research report.” I find this sort of commentary disappointing on a blog nominally dedicated to exploring the social science of world politics. How about a broader discussion of exactly why focusing on the poverty
    line might be misleading. Surly there has to be something more to it
    than simply saying in effect *a survey showed different results.* Why should we trust Afrobarometer’s conclusions any more than Sachs’? Can you help us actually understand this issue?

  • LFC - 2013-10-04

    Thanks for this post.
    I read the Sachs op-ed and it appears that he tries to steer a middle course between “anti-market sentiment” and “free market fundamentalism” (his phrases). He rejects both, saying that both private investment and public-sector involvement are necessary. It is true, though, that he doesn’t squarely discuss distributional issues or the extent to which the benefits of ec. growth are being spread around.
    The decrease in malaria, which he mentions, is a good sign, but the child mortality figures for Africa, which he also cites, are still bad (in 2012, almost 10% under-5 mortality per 1000 births).

  • Megan H MacKenzie - 2013-10-04

    You’re right, this wasn’t an extensive or nuanced critique of Sachs- just a quick comparison between two recent publications. I use language like ‘lala land’ because I’ve been reading Sachs’ unrealistic and harmful writings for years- and it makes me furious and frustrated. For one of the most obvious and best critiques of Sachs, read almost anything by Joseph Stiglitz (former World Bank economist and Nobel prize winner) who says that using GDP to measure poverty (as Sachs does in his op ed) is useless and harmful.

  • RobW - 2013-10-04

    But Stiglitz has his own priors and they tend to be quite clear. I’m more inclined to think Bill Easterly is right when at least he admits that there is much we don’t know about development and how to do it efficiently and effectively.

  • LFC - 2013-10-04

    Sachs writes in the op-ed:

    “…anti-market sentiment is no friend of poverty reduction. But neither is free-market fundamentalism. Economic growth and poverty reduction can’t be achieved by free markets alone. Disease control, public education, the promotion of new science and technology, and protection of the natural environment are public functions that must align with private market forces.” (italics added)

    I disagree w some of the emphases in the op-ed, and I’m not entirely sure what the last phrase means in the above quote, but the above passage doesn’t strike me as especially “harmful.” Sachs in the op-ed is not using GDP to measure poverty; he’s arguing that poverty has gone down partly — he explicitly says “in part” — because GDP has gone up. It’s true he doesn’t address distributional issues but, esp. given the restricted space of an op-ed, this piece does not strike me as being quite as bad as you think it is.

  • LFC - 2013-10-04

    p.s. He also doesn’t address needed structural reforms in eg the global taxation and trade regimes that wd promote development, but again, there’s not much space in an op-ed to do that.

  • Pierce - 2013-10-04

    What if we don’t use GDP? If Sachs sites “the decrease in households living below the extreme-poverty line,” is this also misleading? What about the other measures he uses? Do child mortality rates, access to schooling, safe water, and electricity mean nothing?

    Using GDP as a measure of growth is certainly fine for laymen. Perhaps by saying GDP growth leads to a decrease in poverty, he is describing, to his audience’s level, his overall theory that a countries growth (GDP) is good for everyone.

    Sachs gives more of an argument than what you site. He alludes to the wealth of information at the World Bank on poverty. Your first two paragraphs are nothing but an attack at Sachs. You then site a report that says ” people were poorer in areas where government spending on basic infrastructure lagged.” How odd! Sachs sites the same neccesity: “Continued progress depends on heavy investments in major infrastructure — water, electricity, waste management.”

    Critically, you say “Sachs puts his faith in the market economy.” Did you read his article? He says “So anti-market sentiment is no friend of poverty reduction. But neither is free-market fundamentalism. Economic growth and poverty reduction
    can’t be achieved by free markets alone.” Read this again and please consider the weight it carries coming from Sachs.

    This website puts forth incredible material. It produces academic work that is easily acceptable and well thought out. This post is an embarrassment. I can hardly believe you read the piece you sited. You quote two fine pieces that call for similar things, and in your discourse you lose and mangle the message of both. Your discourse ruins a fine argument. By completely ignoring Sachs call for “a new kind of mixed capitalism,” you degrade the seriousness of our topic and the message of all authors. Shame on you. This mode of discourse and reasoning is what I expect from Fox News, not the Duck.

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