Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thank You For Calling, Mr Sachs

We have a message for you

It's positively wondrous what a prestigious United Nations posting can do for a person.

It provides an immediate career boost, accompanied by a surge in self-esteem... and completely blinds one to the failures of their own policies. And turns them into a bit of a loudmouth.

Jeffrey Sachs, Special UN advisor to Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and director of the Millennium Project, recently had some sharp words for Canada in regards to "global leadership".

"We've seen essentially no global leadership from Canada on poverty, hunger, disease, climate change and foreign assistance," Sachs insisted. "This has been a huge surprise for me as a lifelong admirer of Canada, that we don't see the ambition of the Canadian people manifested in Canada's policies right now."

Yet Sachs himself, for quite a considerable period of time, has been thrust into a position of global leadership, and given billions upon billions upon billions of dollars to make the goals of the Millenium project a reality. The results of Sachs' leadership have been less than inspiring.

Consider the case of Mosquito nets. To date, billions of dollars have been spent on insecticide treated mosquito nets. Intended to solve the preeminent (and spreading) problem of Malaria, these mosquito nets have often been diverted into the black market by the bureaucrats entrusted with their distribution.

William Easterly points out that Sachs efforts to distribute the mosquito nets -- although having more recent successes -- have failed on one key point: people have needs, more often than not know their needs, and will act to meet them if they have the resources.

The fact that Non-profit non governmental organizations that sell heavily subsidized mosquito nets have had considerably more success distributing them than the (often corrupt) local agencies given the nets demonstrates a glaring hole in Sach's prescription for ending poverty in the developing world.

Sachs has, in the course of his career as a would-be economic visionary relied almost exclusively on macroeconomics as a solution to poverty.

His previous catastrophic failures in post-Soviet Russia certainly hasn't dissuaded him from deploying his disastrous shock therapy technique into developing economies -- in particular, Africa.

And just as when his policies failed in Russia, what Sachs insists is necessary is a massive bailout from G8 nations, which is probably what is behind his insistence that Canada contribute 0.7% toward his all too often ill-fated aid programs.

Despite Sachs' criticisms, Canada's contribution of $167 million to the UN food program last year made it the third most prolific donor in the world. In 2005, Paul Martin's Liberal government even changed policy that required food contributed to the program to be purchased from Canadian producers to allow it to be purchased from sources closer to their destination -- a wise decision that hastened delivery of aid considerably, although unfortunately at the expense of Canadian producers.

Yet such initiatives don't seem enough for Sachs, who instead wants to play partisan politics in a country foreign to his own.

"Canada did not show leadership on critical issues, like agriculture, for example, where I was shocked by discussions I had in Ottawa," Sachs insists. "Then the [Martin] government fell, and this government has come in and it's been antagonistic, rhetorically and in policy. It's almost mocking, some times, with these objectives."

Of course, it would be remiss to pretend that Sachs has had no successes. In the few occasions in which he has "lowered" himself to dabbling in some microeconomics -- the approach clearly favoured by Easterly -- Sachs has managed to help do some good in Africa. Consider the Millenium villages project, in which $100 per resident is invested every five years, resulting in some truly fantastic growth.

But the problem with the Millenium village approach is that there hasn't been nearly enough of them, and far too much of the money being spent elsewhere is simply being wasted.

Even Sachs' insistence that investing in research and development in developing states -- while possessing a considerable amount of potential -- overlooks the fact that many of these countries don't have the infrastructure for such R&D in place to begin with.

What is needed in Africa isn't massive macroeconomic re-engineering as Sachs seems to insist. What is necessary, instead, is a rethinking of the basic economic principles at work in Africa, and a questioning of some of the assumption Sachs work is based upon.

For example, Sachs' model of Clinical Economics -- in which developing economies are treated as ailing patients and diagnosed and treated accordingly -- possesses tremendous potential. Unfortunately, too much of it relies on Sachs' so-called poverty trap: a concept that can be discarded after even a remedial economic analysis. (William Easterly demonstrates that the 50 poorest countries in the world today are not the poorest countries in the world as of 50 years ago -- obviously, lack of money is not the dominant factor in sustained poverty, although lack of economic development clearly is.)

What is needed in Africa is more microeconomic aid, on a wider scale, and designed as an incentive for the private sector to get involved in providing for the needs of otherwise destitute Africans. In particular, microloans have been very successful.

But these are successes that Sachs has taken advantage of only sparingly, if at all.

It's clearly time for Jeffrey Sachs to go back to the drawing board and reevaluate his own policies before engaging in finger pointing clearly designed to benefit those he considers his political allies.

Then again, that's yet another perk of being a UN appointee: incredible job security, regardless of whether or not one's track record warrants it or not.

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