Fu­ture so­lu­tions in cred­i­ble pre­dic­tions

Michael Sex­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

MY heart sank when I looked at the ac­knowl­edg­ments in Jef­frey Sachs’s new book. He was hon­oured to ad­vise the UN sec­re­tary- gen­eral and other UN lead­ers who had ‘‘ pro­found tal­ents’’. It had been his ‘‘ pro­found priv­i­lege’’ to col­lab­o­rate with var­i­ous world lead­ers, to whom he ex­pressed his ad­mi­ra­tion and ‘‘ deep­est ap­pre­ci­a­tion’’.

He was thrilled to head an in­ter­na­tional com­mis­sion un­der the ‘‘ bril­liant lead­er­ship’’ of its chair­man. He was grate­ful to Bono and An­gelina Jolie for their ‘‘ un­stint­ing com­mit­ment, gen­eros­ity, lead­er­ship and out­reach’’. And so on for five pages.

As it hap­pens, the book is a lot bet­ter than the ac­knowl­edg­ments. Sachs is di­rec­tor of the Earth In­sti­tute at Columbia Univer­sity in New York and au­thor of a pre­vi­ous best­seller, The End of Poverty . This new book is de­signed to iden­tify the key eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems the world will face dur­ing the next half cen­tury and to pro­pose so­lu­tions to them: a for­mi­da­ble task, but Sachs has no doubt that he is up to it.

We should note, as Sachs does, that there have been sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ments in many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries dur­ing the past 50 years, par­tic­u­larly in the ar­eas of agri­cul­ture and dis­ease con­trol.

This has been achieved largely by for­eign aid, which has mostly meant US funds, al­though of­ten man­aged by in­ter­na­tional agen­cies.

But Sachs is es­pe­cially con­cerned with re­gions that have lagged well be­hind th­ese suc­cesses, chiefly much of Africa and cen­tral Asia. One ob­vi­ous fac­tor in th­ese coun­tries is the rapid rate of pop­u­la­tion growth, which is a cause as well as a prod­uct of poverty. Sachs has a de­tailed pro­gram to ad­dress this prob­lem. Like most of his so­lu­tions, it is based on in­ter­na­tional agree­ments and im­ple­men­ta­tion by UN agen­cies.

Of­ten this approach seems to un­der­es­ti­mate the dif­fi­cul­ties thrown up by na­tional regimes and cul­tural cli­mates.

One key el­e­ment of the pop­u­la­tion strat­egy, for ex­am­ple, is the ed­u­ca­tion and eman­ci­pa­tion of women: hardly a promis­ing start in Is­lamic coun­tries. Sim­i­larly, Sachs has a wide- rang­ing pro­gram for the ut­terly de­pressed and op­pressed re­gion of Dar­fur. But he does not re­ally ac­knowl­edge that it is un­der the con­trol of the Su­danese Gov­ern­ment and that his pro­pos­als would re­quire its un­likely co- op­er­a­tion.

Sachs recog­nises that wa­ter — or lack of it — is one of the big­gest fac­tors hold­ing back de­vel­op­ment in the Sa­hel and Horn of Africa. This has pro­duced some of the most des­per­ate con­di­tions on the globe. He is op­ti­mistic, how­ever, that even th­ese ar­eas can be as­sisted, ar­gu­ing that ge­og­ra­phy shapes but does not settle the fate of a re­gion.

This may be too op­ti­mistic, how­ever. Aus­tra- lia’s de­vel­op­ment has ob­vi­ously been de­ter­mined largely by the fact that most of the con­ti­nent is a desert. In this con­text Sachs notes the emerg­ing con­se­quences of the overuse of the Murray- Dar­ling wa­ter sys­tem.

One prob­lem that is not, of course, con­fined to de­vel­op­ing coun­tries is cli­mate change. There is do doubt global warm­ing is oc­cur­ring, but its causes are not so eas­ily iden­ti­fied. As­sum­ing that car­bon emis­sions are a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor, their re­duc­tion in Aus­tralia poses par­tic­u­lar dif­fi­cul­ties, given the reliance of the coun­try’s ur­ban clus­ters on au­to­mo­biles for trans­port and coal for elec­tric power. Sachs has a range of pro­pos­als for re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions but seems coy about the most ob­vi­ous method, nu­clear power. He does not men­tion, for ex­am­ple, that al­most all elec­tric­ity in France, and much of it in other Euro­pean Union coun­tries, and Ja­pan, comes from this source.

The book has some ad­vice for West­ern coun­tries as well as the de­vel­op­ing world. Sachs very much favours the so­cial wel­fare model of the Scan­di­na­vian group, with its high lev­els of ex­pen­di­ture on ser­vices as a share of gross na­tional prod­uct. It needs to be re­mem­bered, how­ever, that th­ese na­tions are small, longestab­lished and es­sen­tially ho­moge­nous. Even if this model is con­sid­ered an ideal — about which there may be some de­bate — it seems doubt­ful that it could be ap­plied to larger and more mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­eties such as the US, Aus­tralia and Canada.

Sachs is highly crit­i­cal of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s for­eign poli­cies. This is not hard to un­der­stand, but ar­guably he overem­pha­sises polls in­di­cat­ing neg­a­tive views of the US in var­i­ous coun­tries, in­clud­ing mem­bers of the EU. The in­hab­i­tants of th­ese coun­tries try des­per­ately to im­i­tate many as­pects of Amer­i­can life and their he­roes are Hol­ly­wood stars. This may not be a ra­tio­nal po­si­tion but it does sug­gest a de­gree of am­biva­lence about the global role of the US.

All pre­dic­tions about the fu­ture are bound to be at least par­tially wrong but this book is a good at­tempt to iden­tify some of the big­gest prob­lems the world will face dur­ing the next half cen­tury. It is ob­vi­ously pos­si­ble to ar­gue with some of the so­lu­tions that it pro­poses, but the au­thor, as a pro­fes­sional econ­o­mist, would hardly be dis­mayed by that. It de­serves to be read widely.

Michael Sex­ton is the NSW So­lic­i­tor- Gen­eral.

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