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Common Wealth - Economics for a Crowded Planet

By Jeffrey Sachs
Published by Penguin
Website: www.penguin.com
2008, 386pp, ISBN 978 0 713 99919 8(Hb), £22

To many, Jeffrey Sachs needs little introduction. Director of the Earth Institute, economic adviser to the UN and director of the organisation's Millennium Project, he has long worked as an economist at the highest levels - and courted controversy for much of his career.

Accessible, un-cynical and refreshingly optimistic, Common Wealth is also, unfortunately, rather simplistic in its view of humanity's combined ability to change the world for the better. Sachs argues that we can quite easily buy, spend and invest our way out of global poverty and achieve sustainable development en route. Lots of gain, but not much pain, it seems.

For Sachs, availability of money is key, and market forces - combined with government steering - will take care of the rest. Even peak oil, global warming and political corruption are, says Sachs, either readily surmountable or, given the technologies at our disposal, not too much of a problem. He even argues that the idea of nations ruthlessly pursuing natural resources in the future will become passé, yet why this should be is not clear; will natural resources cease to be scarce, or the pursuit of them fashionable?

Sachs' oversimplification of complex issues can become rather exasperating - and it appears in chapter after chapter. The challenge to banishing poverty from India, for example, "is to transform a densely populated subcontinent of subsistence farmers into a modern and largely urban society." How this will simultaneously eradicate the caste system that institutionalises - and, for some, even legitimises - poverty, is not discussed. Nor is it clear exactly how this new, prosperous, urban population will feed itself. Presumably, supplies of raw materials will appear out of thin air - thin indeed, given many of India's already overcrowded cities.

Likewise, the enduring and entrenched political tensions in the Middle East are resolved with a click of his fingers: settle the Israel-Palestine conflict and get all countries in the Middle East to renounce nuclear weapons. Then development can flourish. Easy indeed.

Similarly on Africa, Sachs is able to remedy the maladies of an entire continent in just a few pages. Although he acknowledges the role of bad governance in preventing the benefits of foreign aid being fully realised, it is dismissed simply as "a small part of the problem." What is needed, Sachs contends, is targeted investment and then benign, gregarious ripple effects will take care of the rest. In fact, echoing the frequently-criticised claims in his 2005 book The End of Poverty, Sachs argues that if G8 countries honour their commitments to aid, Africa will not need any external aid whatsoever by 2025.

If that doesn't make you choke on your Green Revolution rice, here is how: money will fix water shortages, money will fix disease and malnutrition, money will mean that climate and climate change do not matter, money will - presumably - find new ways of regenerating degraded soils and combating, negating or reversing desertification. And - if you're still reading - this money will also be sufficient to construct the necessary infrastructure to kick-start an entire continent. Africa will become fully-operational and productive, providing adequate living standards for a projected population of around 1.5 billion people - all in less than a single generation. Just keep sending the money.

Of course, it's not just money that's needed: according to Sachs, we also need "determined effort" buttressed by a large measure of "goodwill" to provide these "modest" funds. Presumably this money will also, somehow, provide an unhindered supply of raw materials and guarantee the invention of all those necessary scientific solutions not yet conceived.

Readers would be forgiven for thinking that in order to achieve such an imminent goal, urgent, decisive action would be necessary. But frustratingly, one of Sachs' "eight actions each of us can take" is to promote sustainable development through social networking websites. That means Facebook and the like.

Critics will condemn Common Wealth as little more than 400 pages of self-congratulatory back-patting for the UN and G8 governments. Meanwhile, supporters of Sachs will hail it as an invigorating and upbeat prescription for achieving global prosperity. But in writing for such a wide audience, Sachs has traded substance for accessibility, dumbing down complicated arguments and, in so doing, he fails to acknowledge a formidable herd of elephants-in-the-room.

Date published: May 2008


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