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“Me Tarzan. Me save Africa.” Jeffrey Sachs, the G8 and poverty

Anthony Barnett, 4. juli 2005

The leading economist, Jeffrey Sachs’s agenda for ending poverty in Africa is shared by the NGOs behind the Make Poverty History campaign and the organisers of the global Live8 concerts. Anthony Barnett meets Sachs and examines the politics of protest around the G8 summit in Scotland.

The initial idea of the Group of Eight (G8) summit seems to have been an annual parade by the most powerful world leaders to record their “place in history”. This then provoked a much more lively “protest” against the world-system the leaders personify. Now, the professionals of the spectacle have moved in.

They celebrate rather than condemn the display of gathered power, as at Gleneagles in Scotland from 6-8 July 2005. But then seek to hoist the leaders with their petard: if you are so powerful, why not make a difference? As the co-organiser (with Bono and Richard Curtis) of the global Live8 concerts on 2 July, Bob Geldof, writes:

“The G8 leaders have it within their power to alter history. They will only have the will to do so if tens of thousands of people show them that enough is enough.
By doubling aid, fully cancelling debt, and delivering trade justice for Africa, the G8 could change the future for millions of men, women and children.”

Here, then, is a new politics of globalisation. Mighty NGOs turning over hundreds of millions of dollars join forces with rock stars and celebrities with millions of followers, to give voice to the simple human cry: we must do something about the unacceptably unjust state of the world.

The organisers of this new global politics have overtaken the mighty religious establishments in their capacity to see the world as a whole, and even challenge them in the size of their following – although their congregations are momentary rather than continuous, filling cavernous sports stadiums and public parks rather than building churches and temples.

But through their command of the mass mediums and their canny marketing and sense of the moment, they have turned this G8 gathering into a call for change. Not, it should be said, without the equally canny encouragement of the New Labour leaders who are also masters of modern populism, seeking a place in history of a higher order than a group photograph.

Enter Jeffrey Sachs

If there is one theorist of this new politics it is the well-connected American scholar-activist Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at New York’s Columbia University, advisor to the United Nations and many governments. He was already thinking hard about Gleneagles when I met him in London in April to launch his book, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time.

Jeffrey Sachs tells me:

“We have a major summit, a defining summit, in Scotland. The hosts, the British government, and the others have to say to the United States: ‘You know, it is not just your business spending thirty times more on the military than on development assistance. It is our business too. It means the world is not solving its development problems and is not safe for anybody’.”
“I truly believe this is what the government here needs to tell George W Bush because the Americans need to hear it from the rest of the world clearly. It is not doing any favours not to risk being impolite, if that means being absolutely explicit and clear. Because the stakes are far too high to just have an all smiles photo-op in Gleneagles.”

“I don’t know whether it’s fair or not fair, but on the whole I think it is fair to put it on the British prime minister, Tony Blair’s shoulders right now. He has to deliver George W Bush at this summit because George W Bush delivered Tony Blair as an ally in Iraq.”

“I am not getting into United Kingdom politics. The point is that the UK has stood by the Bush administration. Now the UK and particular the prime minister and the chancellor, Gordon Brown, have championed the Commission for Africa report. This is a first-rate report analytically and politically. It says the right things; it says African needs the help now and can use the help. I have visited several parts of Africa since that report was issued and it has raised expectations. Now Britain’s government has to deliver. And in order to deliver it has to deliver George Bush because if the United States continues with its dreadfully insufficient levels of assistance … and that is taken as legitimate, well then we’re lost.”

Defining the problem

Sachs has set himself the task of persuading the highest and mightiest to see sense. His sprawling book sets out his case and, on the way, his life’s effort. The end result will be, he hopes, “enlightened globalisation”. Its range and ambition are refreshing, as are the number of examples, case studies and vivid details, usually missing from studies of globalisation.

But like the slogan “make poverty history”, his title is misleading. “The end of poverty” does not mean the end of poverty. Poverty in the sense of relative poorness and lack of security and the basic good things of life, cannot be ended except by the efforts of the poor themselves.

But what can be ended, Sachs argues, is “extreme poverty”. I think it is better to call it “destitution”. The destitute are those unable to escape their immiseration by their own efforts however hard they try. They can live and love but not overcome. They have their places, as John Berger movingly describes in his openDemocracy article “That have not been asked: ten dispatches about endurance in the face of walls”, but they do not have residence on our planet.

Sachs describes how $2 a day means none of the savings or resources, education or the basic family health needed to escape destitution.

“The American rhetoric definitely is that markets can solve everything. One of the big points I make in the book is that when you are so poor and so isolated and desperate, markets are absolutely designed to ignore you entirely. They are not exploiting you. You offer them nothing. They leave you to die.”
He calculates the amounts needed to sustain development aid and transform the lives of the destitute (making the important point that such aid is different from disaster relief). The costs are obscenely trivial for the G8 countries.

His argument, crudely summarised, is that there is no “magic bullet”. Each society needs what Sachs calls “clinical economics” that takes on its special constellation of problems and potential. Destitution has a number of linked causes, and its elimination needs programmes. But as a whole Africa needs, he calculates, $30 billion to “escape from poverty”; a sum that is easily affordable if the United States would commit to 0.7% of its GNP in aid.

This simple, human appeal for easily affordable amounts of more aid is directed at America. A politics is inescapably intertwined within it. A politics that should not be dismissed but which cannot succeed in the form in which Sachs presents it.

The personal and the political

This is revealed in the tension between Sachs’s solutions and the voice in which they are expressed.

The simple economic argument in The End of Poverty appears compelling:

“Think of it. To go from today’s donor assistance level of 0.14 percent of GNP to 0.7 percent of GNP would be an extra of 0.56 percent of GNP. With U.S. per capita GNP rising by around 1.9 per cent year, the extra amount represents less than one third of a single year’s growth of GNP. So, if the United States were on track to reach a $40,000 disposable income by, say, January 1, 2010, it would instead reach the same income on May 1, 2010, one third of a year later. This four-month lag in attaining a higher level of consumption would mean that a billion people would be given an economic future of hope, health, and improvements rather than a downward spiral of despair, disease, and decline.”
How could anyone suggest that such monies should not be found? Or resist the argument that underlies the proposal?

Well, they could. I spoke to a friend, an experienced and thoughtful Africa expert who has worked in the continent on development issues. “It’s a terrible book”, he claimed. He sees new aid programmes as a setback. The lesson of the recent past is that, as aid flows disappeared in the last decades of the 20th century, the best NGOs began to assist Africans to build their own capabilities.

Now, dependency rather than a stronger indigenous civil society and government, would be recreated. Africa’s own capacity will be hollowed out yet again.

This is a grave charge in a highly moralised atmosphere. I was commissioned to interview and respond to Sachs because, like most of his readers, I am not an expert on Africa and its development. So whom to credit? I like Sachs’s self-belief, his outrageous ambition, his refusal to take “no” for an answer and his can-do, “let’s-make-this-better” approach. But one chapter in particular made me understand my friend’s fury at the Sachs approach. It is on Africa and disease, and is titled “The Voiceless Dying”.

This is how it opens: “I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa before 1995.” The next paragraph begins, “By the time I had begun to work in Africa I was prepared to see things more clearly … ”

Two pages on and the first-person singular gets into its stride:

“I began to suspect that the omnipresence of disease and death had played a big role in Africa’s prolonged inability to develop economically … I decided to take on the question of Africa’s lack of economic development … I had a lot to learn about disease and public health … I have to admit, I could not even begin to imagine what I would find … I was shocked. … Once again I looked at what was being done … I made a speech … I went on the warpath with the international financial community over AIDS and malaria … I teamed up with President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria … I received a call from Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland of the World Health Organisation (suggesting) that I chair a commission … It made the important point that we, as a generation, can do something dramatic to improve our world … I started to push the idea of a “global fund” to fight AIDS and malaria … I met with the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, whom I consider the world’s finest statesman … . A decade of intensive work in Africa has added to my determination to fight against prejudices … I have turned my attention to issues beyond public health … Sooner than I expected, I received an important new opportunity to put these ideas into practice.”
With these words the chapter ends. There are many more uses of the “I”-word than recorded here. But “the voiceless dying” of the chapter’s title are not heard.

It is not that Sachs is only interested in the sound of his own voice: he listens, researches, he is a pleasure to interview, he engages as many gurus and self-publicists do not. Almost certainly there are people alive today who would not have been had he not been so relentless. He has shifted the agenda, raised expectation, defied fatalism. In this sense he has helped to make a better global politics more possible.

At the heart of his agenda is the exercise of power in Washington DC:

“I have to say I see lots of problems with the American political system. It is awash in money and its very bad, but I don’t think I can solve that right now. I do think I can get more aid out of America because …. I believe that average Americans would do more and would also ask the rich to do more.”
Recent polling suggests he is right, (PIPA G8 Poll).

In 1992, Sachs clashed with Washington over its failure to give aid to a Russia painfully emerging from the Soviet Union. When, at a crucial moment that year, he called for a $15 billion “stabilisation fund” to save democracy in Russia he was told to “forget it”. Now he accepts that official Washington was not, as he then thought, merely naïve and short sighted in failing to see its self-interest in a more democratic Russia. It fully understood the argument. But its deliberate aim was to ensure long-term military dominance, whatever the humanitarian consequences.

Today, Sachs thinks that because Washington has no military-strategic interest in Africa he can (helped by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown at the G8 summit) win it round to what he thinks is a purely humanitarian cause. He resists the idea that Washington might see extreme inequality and instability as an advantage for the American world order.

In an ambiguity that also lies at the heart of much NGO campaigning around the G8 gathering, he has to give Washington the benefit of the doubt or he could not seek to persuade it to change course. Yet Sachs has a profound disagreement with the direction Bush is taking America.

When he was trying to persuade the Boris Yeltsin government in Russia to adopt market reforms, he writes that he repeatedly advised them: “aim for normalcy rather than uniqueness”. I put it to him that this was just the advice he ought now to be giving the Bush administration. Almost always, influential Americans resist any suggestion – of the sort made by Tom Nairn in his pathbreaking openDemocracy series “America against globalisation” that their country should be seen as needing to be normal. To my surprise Sachs agrees without hesitation:

“America should understand that it should be striving to be a normal country in a normal world rather than an exceptional country in a hyper-imbalanced world. Start with a realistic account of the economics and the demography and the technology and I would be pursuing things very differently in America. That is what I am arguing. Let’s get real and let’s get sensible and let’s participate in helping to shape the world in a way that is going to be safe and prudent. Let’s not believe that we do not have to care about the rest of the world except through military dominance.”
Dreaming the alternative

Bob Geldof told his Live8 performers to lay off Bush and the Iraq war. Sachs connects the two. How can you have intelligent aid if you are paying the costs of stupid military adventurism? Undaunted, Sachs wants to persuade the stupid to see sense.

What is the alternative? The other protests at the G8 summit marched through Edinburgh in huge numbers on 2 July and continue this week around Gleneagles itself. Many share the view of Nicola Bullard of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South, talking to Stuart Hodkinson of Red Pepper:

“The G8 is a completely illegitimate and unaccountable body of global governance; its governments and corporations are historically responsible for most of the problems of developing countries and remain so today. Lobbying the G8 contradicts the very clear call made by hundreds of social movements NGOs and trade unions from the south and the north at this year’s World Social Forum to mobilise protests against the G8 Summit.”
So that’s that then? We have to insist the G8 is abolished, while the destitute die?

Live8 has discomforted the World Social Movement. The latter sees itself as the global justice movement of young people. Now, it has been upstaged by a rock populism whose form of protest can be as facile as it is catchy. Take the adverts of beautiful, or at least famous celebrities clicking their fingers once every three seconds – to bring home the number of needless child deaths from destitution, every minute of every day.

Well, yes. But two-thirds of the destitute, Sachs tells me, are in China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan – countries with rich and well-entrenched ruling systems. It is not the majority of the world’s destitute that the G8 are being asked to save. They are not in Africa. An awkward fact. But a click every nine seconds does not make such a good TV spot.

Or take the indifference to debt write-off that apparently grips country after country in Africa itself. The main complaint of Africans, from what I can gather, is that their damn leaders are not only corrupt – that happens everywhere – they won’t even keep the fruits of their ill-gotten corruption in their countries and instead invest them in London or Switzerland.

Ten days before Gleneagles, on 25 June, the BBC showed a TV film – The Girl in the Café – by Richard Curtis (of Four Weddings and a Funeral and, now, Live8 fame). It was, in effect, a fairy story. It took an everyperson, a Cinderella, into the grand dinner of a G8 summit to tell the assembled power-mongers and their spouses that they should put aside their narrow self-interest and stop the destitute from starving.

It could not happen. But that is the point. It would be nice if it could. Let us discomfort and embarrass power, and enjoy it. Yet this is also a comfortable, feel-good, embarrassment, at which Curtis is the master. It seamlessly communicated the issue: that global injustice is intolerable, that any politics worth its name must be grounded on more than self-interest. Outside Gleneagles cows graze. You could fly one around the world first-class, we were told, for less than the cost of its annual European Union subsidy, the film told us, while for the same amount hundreds of lives could be saved.

Her protest made, the girl in the café returns to … a political vacuum. The only hope is the leaders themselves, and she is left watching them about to make their announcement on television. For all the engagement with complex arguments Sachs too ends his book with the call to “make a personal commitment”.

The missing link: democracy

What is missing from his argument is democracy. He sets out how the destitute need “six types of capital” to escape from extreme poverty:

  • the human capital that ensures basic health
  • the business capital that provides the necessary machines
  • the infrastructure, such as roads and water supply
  • the natural capital of healthy soils and environment
  • the “public institutional capital” of law and basic government services
  • the “knowledge capital” of technical understanding to keep it all in motion.
There is a vital missing element from Sachs’s list: the capital of democratic citizenship, of the capacity – both cultural and institutional – to make a claim on power, to challenge both fatalism and corruption. It is not just the existence of laws and administration that is needed, essential though that is, but access to law-enforcement and the self-belief necessary to make a claim upon it.

Similarly, Sachs concludes with nine “next steps” the west must undertake. These include “raising the voices of the poor”. They do not include political organisation.

Jeffrey Sachs makes a compelling case for engagement and for the need for government and responsibility. This is an advance on the era of structural adjustment and privatisation. It is a return to politics at the level of the nation-state and international organisations. But when it comes to people, it remains the politics of moral persuasion.

“Making a personal commitment” has to be more than looking to the personal commitment and courage of leaders to deliver. Otherwise, it reinforces and even encourages a childish dependency upon them.

This article is published by Anthony Barnett, and appeared originally on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. To view the original article, please click here.


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Opdateret d. 3.10.2005