A while ago, Time Magazine ran a story called `The End of Poverty.’ It outlined celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs’s plan to end extreme poverty. Ending extreme poverty is certainly a goal to be desired, but the centralized approach that Mr. Sachs advocates will never work.
Sachs is obviously a smart man. In his book he says that he has been all over the world, observing and helping people in poverty situations. He is charismatic, intelligent, and motivated, and under his supervision many villages have risen up from extreme poverty. But Sachs is only one man. In case he hasn’t noticed, not everyone in the world is as smart and motivated as him. And Sachs wants 150 billion dollars per year to fund his proposals. 150 billion dollars. 1.1 billion people that he wants to help, in one hundred countries, in thousands of villages. Sachs can’t be everywhere at once. The people that will actually be administering all of this wonderful aid will be the same people that are doing it now. In other words, bureaucrats. And we all know how great the UN bureaucracy is. Of course the thing that they need is more money. They could hardly use what they’ve got any better. Before we give the UN more money than they’ve ever dreamed, we need to examine the effectiveness of this organization.
Sachs says that his proposal is different, and that he knows about the fallacies of taking the `throw money at it’ approach to solving economic problems, but this is money-throwing to the max. From what I’ve read, Sachs is not proposing any particularly innovative new solutions. Just the same old: more food, more medical supplies, more aid workers, more, more, more. That certainly treats the symptoms of poverty, but it doesn’t really treat the causes. In Sachs’s diagnosis, there are no causes, or at least none that apply now. All of the poverty in the world is the result of unfortunate circumstances or those scummy capitalists over in money-land. But this simply isn’t true. However much Sachs tries to deny it, many of those countries are crime-ridden and corrupt. Sachs’s solution to that problem is for the UN to basically take over the country. In other words, a top-heavy, top down approach.
The way that the problem needs to be solved is a bottom up approach. You start with the national governments of the countries, put pressure on them to reduce economic unfairness in their own taxation systems, put pressure on them to introduce more democratic practices, and reduce the tyranny of crime and war lords. Once this has happened, the national governments can request aid themselves, and the local governments can request aide from the national government, to solve specific problems. This approach has several advantages.
For one, things are more adaptable. Sachs’s plan is 3,000 pages long because he’s trying desperately to account for every circumstance. Even with these 3,000 pages (which no one will ever read), he can’t possibly account for every circumstances. A bottom- up approach allows for better flexibility, and accountability at every level.
A bottom-up approach does not depend upon the ideas and resources of one man or a small group of men. I’m sure that Sachs would love to be The Man Who Ended Poverty, but it just is not going to happen. One man alone cannot end a global problem that’s been around since shortly after the hunter-gatherer days.
Sachs complains in his article about the administrative costs that take away so much money before it ever gets to the people who need it. Well, his plan is not going to cut these costs. It calls for the aide to be passed down from heaven (or the U.N. offices) right down into the slums. That’s a long trip, and there are bound to be lots of middle-men, lots of U.N. offices, lots of bureaucrats that want their cut.
Ending poverty would be nice, but Sachs’s plan simply won’t do it.
Cross-posted to Leoniceno’s Corner