The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

A Tale of Two Poverties: Sachs versus the world

October 4, 2013

Interpreting evidence related to poverty and development is never straightforward. Neo-liberal supporters of free market economics tend to point to economic growth as evidence that global inequality is stabilising, while those “closer to the ground” often point out the limitations of economic measurements and encourage a broader understanding of the everyday signs of exploitation and inequality in countries around the world- classic Development Studies 101. Evidence of this sustained divide between those who talk about poverty and those who seek to understand global economic inequality can seen by contrasting a recent NYT opinion piece by Jeffrey Sachs and an extensive research report on poverty. Sachs (primarily focused on the continent of Africa) declares that poverty is ending…soon; while a broader report published 24 hours later found that “economic growth is not helping Africa’s poor.” It seems almost unbelievable that such disparate accounts of “the developing world” can be printed within a 48 hour period. Poverty is ending, poverty is deepening, the market will save Africa, the market has destroyed Africa. With such contrasting messages it is no wonder that the general public (particularly students trying to understand ‘development’) can get confused.

In his op ed Sachs provides us a generalised yet messianic prediction about the future of poverty. In classic Sachs lala land form, he declares that when it comes to reducing poverty “the evidence is on the side of the optimists.” Poverty is on the way out…soon… hallelujah and praise to the free market. He claims that the two divine signs of this shift are 1. the decrease in households living below the extreme-poverty line; and 2. evidence of economic growth (from 2.3% per year in 1990-2000 to 5.7 during 2000-2010).

The results of an Afrobarometer survey released this Tuesday call Sachs prediction into question. The survey found that “even at a time when…countries are reporting impressive economic gains” most Africans are facing challenges meeting their basic daily needs. The survey discusses the reality of “lived” poverty, including continued problems with infrastructure and access to health and education. While Sachs puts his faith in the market economy, research indicates that “the market” does not provide motivation to invest in key areas that improve people’s everyday lives. Specifically, the report found that “people were poorer in areas where government spending on basic infrastructure lagged.”

There is nothing new about this development double-speak, but it is particularly frustrating that Sachs delusional celebratory piece was published alongside, yet ignorant of, such extensive and important research on inequality.

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Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her main research interests include feminist international relations, gender and the military, the combat exclusion for women, the aftermaths of war and post-conflict resolution, and transitional justice. Her book Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight comes out with Cambridge University Press in July 2015.