Battle of the Sachses

This post is by guest blogger Angela Tam, a fellow steady stater, the author of Sustainable Building in Hong Kong and Progress. Progress? Angela also maintains the blog Sustainable Living Hong Kong.

Remember the Make Poverty History campaign of 2005? Idealistic youngsters wearing the T-shirt and rubber wristbands poured through the streets of London, Edinburgh and elsewhere, urging world leaders to forgive Third World debt, led by the likes of Bono, the rock star who’s multiplied his music earnings goodness knows how many folds through canny investments.

The idea of “making poverty history” seems great doesn’t it? How can we hope to see social justice when there are millions of people in the world making less than a dollar a day? Now, the whole issue of poverty and social justice is in the spotlight again due to climate change.

There is no doubt the poor will suffer much much more than the rich because of climate change. While the rich can afford higher prices, horde goods and obtain the best medical treatment, the poor will suffer hunger, drought, disease and the effects of increasingly frequent and devastating weather events.

This seems so obvious that when someone with all the right credentials comes up with an idea for “alleviating poverty”, he instantly wins widespread support. But what exactly is “poverty”? Is it possible that we have been fooled into fighting shadows?

This is where we have what I call “The Battle of the Sachses”.

“Poverty” as we know it

“Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.”

So said the World Bank, which went on to define it in terms of a dollar sum established using purchasing power parity to measure income across nations. The sum: less than $1.25 a day at 2005 prices.

Well, it’s a bit of an awkward figure and a mouthful to say, so the Bank’s definition of “moderate poverty” – less than US$2 a day – is more often quoted. And out of this figure has come a plethora of propaganda. We’ve all seen the images: a malnourished child with flies on his face, against a barren background of scant vegetation; a sick mother in a mud hut with a stick serving as a makeshift stand for a saline drip; men in tattered clothing by a dusty road, frowning and idle.

There is no arguing that widespread deprivation exists. In many places, the usual suspects –overpopulation, food shortage and wars, etc – are responsible for the heartrending images we see.

So Jeffrey suggests…

Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is well-known for his work on poverty and his 2005 book, The End of Poverty, expounded on his ideas for eliminating “poverty” by 2025. As a special advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General and former director of the UN Millennium Project, his words hold a lot of weight.

His idea is simple: help the poor “onto the ladder of development, to give them at least a foothold on the bottom rung, from which they can then proceed to climb on their own.”

His plans to help farmers improve yields, cut down incidences of malaria, etc, are not wrong, in themselves. What’s wrong is the goal of his plans, which is to turn people in developing countries into cogs in the global economy. Well what’s wrong with that, you ask, if these people can sell their products and earn an income that relieve them from the deprivation they suffer?

There’s a lot wrong with this approach, actually, because when we turn the alleviation of bad living conditions into a monetisation of people’s lives, a process with exploitation at its core is triggered that ultimately destroys communities as well as the environment. There are two typical scenarios. In the first scenario, money and “technical assistance”, as development agency bureaucrats like to call it, are provided to help a developing country overcome poverty. Through corruption and appropriation, the money and equipment end up in the ruler’s coffers and the people never get to benefit. Assuming the problem of governance is solved, we’d still have the second scenario, under which the people, having got some of the money – not all by any stretch, mind, since there is bound to be layers of officialdom and corporate hierarchy creaming off a good portion in the form of fees and commissions – turn into slaves of the global marketplace.

Have you heard the story of coffee? For many developing countries, it was an export crop that had a key role to play in “lifting people out of poverty”. Then things went wrong: in 2001, coffee prices dropped – by 64% in two years in Nicaragua – and suddenly the livelihood of millions was under threat.

The drop in coffee prices could be traced to the entry of Vietnam into the market. From being an insignificant producer, it rose to become the second-largest coffee-exporting country in the world. With such a huge increase in supply, a drastic fall in prices was inevitable.

That’s “economic development” for you. Vietnam as a country suddenly found itself earning lots of foreign exchange and could congratulate itself for finding employment for thousands of farmers, but behind this “success story” is the burning of forests to clear land for coffee plantations and the displacement of indigenous ethnic minorities. Nor could the migrant farmers rely on the coffee trade to bring in a regular income, because fluctuations in commodity prices and the power of agri-businesses to squeeze good prices from suppliers mean they continue to fear for the future, not knowing whether they can feed their families from one day to the next.

But Wolfgang says…

Wolfgang Sachs is a senior research fellow at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany. A sociologist and theologian by training, his take on “poverty” is quite different from that of his American namesake Jeffrey.

As he pointed out, “poverty” was not an issue until the World Bank made it one in the 1940s, when UN statistics was used to highlight the income discrepancy between nations. “When size of income is thought to indicate social perfection, as it does in the economic model of society, one is inclined to interpret any other society that does not follow that model as ‘low-income’,” he wrote:

“Moreover, this conceptual operation provided justification for intervention: wherever low income is the problem, the only answer can be ‘economic development’. There was no mention of the idea that poverty might also result from oppression and thus demand liberation, or that a culture of sufficiency might be essential for long-term survival, or, even less, that a culture might direct its energies towards spheres other than the economic. No, as it was in the industrial nations so it was to be in all the others: poverty was diagnosed as a lack of spending power crying to be banished through economic growth. Under the banner of ‘poverty’ the enforced reorganization of many societies into money economies was subsequently conducted like a moral crusade. Who could be against it?”

And how right he was: six years after Wolfgang’s observations were published in his book Planet Dialectics, it was Jeffrey’s take on poverty that pushed all before it, including idealistic youngsters and NGOs.

But who can begrudge developing nations the material improvements they have achieved by buying into Jeffrey’s vision of the world? Would we rather see so many of our fellow human beings continue to wallow in grime and disease?

No. But look at the consequence of following Jeffrey’s vision, and consider the possibilities of pursuing Wolfgang’s instead.

Which Sachs to Seek?

Thanks to the financial crisis, many African countries that have tied themselves to the global capitalist development model are finding themselves mired in recession, with collapsing housing markets and unemployment leading the UN to express concern that “the crisis may degenerate into a social development crisis [sic] on the continent as the recession deepens.” Desperate for funds, many are selling whatever resources they have in bulk to rapacious foreign firms in exchange for help in building the infrastructure that would perpetuate the vicious cycle, by improving access to export markets.

Now what would happen if, instead of piling into factories or plantations to make goods or produce for export, people in developing countries focus on strengthening their self-sufficiency instead? There is the example of the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka, where the aim is also to provide the clean drinking water, health care and education to rural communities up and down the country, but the goal is “establishment of complete self-reliance and self-financing.”

Given the dire straits the planet is in, and the sorry ending the climate change summit at Copenhagen seems headed, development that aims to strengthen self-sufficiency offers the only hope of relief from economic deprivation that does not compromise people’s ability to lead culturally, physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and communally enriching lives.

If a self-reliance movement in Sri Lanka seems too remote, then the Transition Town movement that started in Britain may serve as another reference. The movement is based on the recognition that peak oil will strike a fatal blow to today’s dominant economic model, which is predicated on the availability of cheap energy, and hence the need to develop an alternative model that emphasizes local, communal production and sharing.

The current system of global trade is simply not sustainable, because it is reliant on a plentiful supply of cheap energy. There may be sufficient geothermal power, wind farms and solar panels to keep towns and cities running, but it’s doubtful whether enough biofuels can ever be produced to power the fleets of container ships and cargo planes as cheaply as the world’s fast-depleting reserves of oil does today.

And that means those who follow Jeffrey’s vision will at some point in the future hit a wall, while those with the foresight to build an alternative system that reflects Wolfgang’s perspective will be able to thrive.

Which ones would you rather be?