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The age of closing the development gap?





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If anyone on this crowded and resource-hungry planet should know about development and economic sustainability, it's the celebrated economist Jeffrey Sachs. Curtis Abraham reviews his new book The Age of Sustainable Development, published to coincide with the launch of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Here, the bestselling author argues that sustainable development is the most important challenge facing this generation. But does he suggest how to achieve it?

Jeffrey Sachs wears many hats: head of the UN's Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Special Advisor to Ban Ki-moon on the UN Millennium Development Goals, Director of the Earth Institute at New York's Columbia University, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, professor of health policy and management, rounder of Africa's Millennium Villages initiative and indeed, a bestselling author.

In his latest book released on the "eve" of the SDGs, the fundamental question Sachs seeks to address is: How can the global economy continue to develop in a way that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable?

In this latest book, as in some of his earlier writings, such as The End of Poverty, Sachs makes the diagnoses of what makes countries poor (therefore prohibiting them from achieving sustainability), what keeps them underdeveloped and the ultimate remedy to enable prosperity; what economists call convergence or a narrowing of the proportionate gap between a poor country and a richer, comparison country.

"Throughout this book, and throughout the pursuit of sustainable development, we are interested in determining how poor countries can narrow and eventually close the development gap with richer countries," he writes.

African countries, says Sachs, are stuck in a poverty trap although some have made remarkable economic and political progress over the past decade. A generation ago this was also the case with some East Asian countries.

His diagnosis is that factors such as geography, culture and politics inhibit economic growth and what is needed are measures such as key economic reforms, like what China has accomplished over the past generation.

Sachs is confident that science and technology is the way forward for places like sub-Saharan Africa (one of his favourite essays is by the great economist John Maynard Keynes, where he wrote about technology's ability to end poverty in Great Britain during the height of the Great Depression in 1930). He cites how global public health efforts such as developing treatment cures and insecticide-treated bed nets have succeeded in reducing malaria infections. And he rightly sees how the rise of mobile phone technology on the continent has had a positive effect on areas as diverse as agriculture and e-commerce. He notes, however, there are still ways to improve in terms of increasing agricultural outputs and increasing clean water availability, for example.

He is also convinced that global governments will eventually sort themselves out and come round to the agenda of what he and other experts call the "Triple Bottom Line Approach": economic, social and environmental objectives that Sachs sees as being at the heart of sustainable development.

"Governments must carry out many core functions to enable societies to prosper," says Sachs. He adds: "Among these core functions of government are the provision of social services such as health care and education; the provision of infrastructure such as roads, ports, and power; the protection of individuals from crime and violence; the promotion of basic science and new technologies; and the implementation of regulations to protect the environment."

In some parts of Africa, however, Sachs' hyperoptimism could well be dashed because a myriad of issues--such as the lack of good governance and service delivery, corruption in high places and recently, the issue of presidential term limits which led to the civil unrests in Burundi and Burkina Faso--hold back efforts at sustainable development.

But Sachs, who has spent considerable time over the past two decades visiting Africa, seemingly offers little on how African leaders can collectively do the right things to move from the oft ingrained view the masses have that politicians are more into private gain than public service. Addressing this issue is a fundamental component in making Africa achieve meaningful sustainable development.


Land and water grabs that are currently taking place in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere in the developing world are also conspicuously absent from the book. Most experts see this modern-day scramble for Africa's resources as a major key to the increase in global inequalities. Surely, isn't robbing people in the developing world of their essential but dwindling natural resources an economic and social barrier to sustainable development?

The Age of Sustainable Development is written with the lay reader in mind as Sachs takes us through a short history of global economic development, the science behind climate change, and sustainable development.

The book is also illustrated with hundreds of colour photographs, charts, graphs and maps like the one that demonstrates the connection between poverty and geography. Africa's landlocked countries, such as Niger, Mali, Chad and the Central African Republic, are among some of the continent's least developed. Economic development depends heavily on international trade, which is significantly more difficult for landlocked countries, says Sachs.


Sachs also has a chapter on the just-launched Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which developmental economists such as William Easterly are against and describe as once again, a one-size-fits-all global initiative, like others that have failed in the past. They argue that not only are such schemes ineffective in the long term but they have also squandered trillions of dollars and are potentially harmful. Easterly sees them as arrogant modern-day Utopian engineering schemes and prefers gradual local approaches, rigorously monitoring the results of every project.

Human activities such as farming, land use, urbanisation, demographic change and energy use, change the physical environments and are increasing in dangerous ways. Economic growth has also caused a population explosion of 7.2 billion. In fact, scientists have given the modern age a name: the Anthropocene --a proposed epoch that begins when human activities start to Have a significant global impact on Earth's ecosystems.

"Humanity is changing Earth's climate, the availability of fresh water, the oceans' chemistry, and the habitats of other species," he writes, adding: "Sustainable development is a way of understanding the world as a complex interaction of economic, social, environmental, and political systems ... a normative or ethical view of the world, a way to define the objectives of a well functioning society, one that delivers wellbeing for its citizens today and for future generations."

The global economy has created "fabulous wealth and extreme poverty", says Sachs. "The poorest of the poor face the daily life-and-death challenges of insufficient nutrition, lack of health care, unsafe shelter, and the lack of safe drinking water and sanitation."

Despite all its socio-economic, political, scientific and technological progress over the past generation, this is still sadly the case for much of the African continent.

Sachs' book is well worth a read and is a valuable contribution to the topic of global sustainability by a master of developmental economics. Unfortunately, The Age of Sustainable Development, undoubtedly, raises more questions than it answers.
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Author:Abraham, Curtis
Publication:New African
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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