Thoughts on The End of Poverty

April 27, 2008

activism / books

Recently, I have been reading The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. The book’s goal is to explain the unique opportunity that exists in our time: to eliminate extreme poverty in the world. Extreme poverty, in this case, is defined as the 1 billion+ people that live on less than $1 US per day.

Now. The book spends significant time looking into various problems that the poorest countries (mostly in Africa) face, from disease to geographic limitations to Western meddling and all kinds of other things. Aside from looking at the problems, it tries to look at real, practical, possible solutions.

One of the most frustrating, from an American perspective, is described like this:

The problem is the complete disconnect between the extent of the initiative [a 2002 aid program created by the Bush Administration] – $5 billion more per year by the third year – and the needs of the poor countries (on the order of $100 billion more per year between 2006-2015 to meet the Millennium Development Goals) and with the commitment of the United States to make “concrete efforts” to target 0.7 percent of GNP [the amount that has repeatedly been agreed upon as aid needed from developed nations]. The $5 billion represents less than 0.05 percent of U.S. GNP. Even more startling, not a single penny of the Millennium Challenge Account had been disbursed by late 2004.

This quote occurs in the context of a chapter that discusses the unanimous opinion that there is a link between aiding economic growth and U.S. national security. It looks into the pragmatic reasons that it is a good thing for us to give aid to help countries get out of extreme poverty.

Throughout the book, a common theme remains that United States foreign policy in the past couple of decades (both Democratic and Republican administrations) has been very good at talking about foreign aid, and very bad at doing anything about it. As defense budgets have risen, aid budgets have fallen, and it is easy to observe that we are not getting more secure.

Times like ours are contrasted with things like the Marshall Plan, in which our country realized that aiding the recovery of Europe, which included foreign aid over 1.0 percent of GNP. Leaders of our country at the time were well aware that an economically progressing Europe would lead to a more secure United States.

Many of the chapters in this book cover things that (should) evoke brokenness and compassion on the part of people in wealthy countries, and should contribute to action. The Millennium Development Goals can make and are making a difference in the world, as businesses and individuals contribute to the transformation of African villages.

But the saddening part is that governments are not contributing in any meaningful way, especially ours. Statistics and surveys show that we as American citizens believe that our government does far more for the poor in foreign countries than it does, and that we would support even more support than we think there is. It’s mind-boggling. While this is not surprising to learn, it is difficult.