This evening I attended a talk given by Jeffrey Sachs, hosted by the James Martin 21st Century School here at the University of Oxford. I’ll state my prejudices up front: I used to be a huge fan of Sachs. I saw him speak in Oxford several years ago, as I was starting my masters in development economics. I had spent a lot of my undergrad concerned about human development (sadly, I was a relative oddity in that department). I was already starting to doubt the creed that more aid when I first saw him speak – since then I’ve grown a lot more cynical, and now consider his belief in the power of the big push to be misguided. Still, I tried to keep an open mind going in.
Sachs was, as always, a enthralling speaker. He has quite a natural delivery, although there are a few moments when it felt a little wooden (when he cited some of his favourite quotes by JFK, for instance). His talk boiled down to the four big problems that need to be solved by restructuring and improving global governance:
- Managing global macroeconomic and financial instability, in which he was concerned mainly with avoiding the sort of booms and bust we’ve been facing recently.
- Transitioning the global governance structure from a US led system (where the extent of its economic, political and military gives it hegemonic powers ) to a more balanced global power structure (i.e, one dominated by the Asian continent).
- A global move to more sustainable economic progress.
- Improving the ability of the world to provide financing for both global and local public goods.
I found myself nodding in agreement that all four issues were some of the most critical concerns of my generation. I found myself agreeing less as he moved down his list of solutions for the third and fourth points. On the third point, he again failed to be clear on exactly what sort of trade-offs we’re prepared to make for the sake of more sustainable development.
Also, as expected, I found his discussion of financing development to be too optimistic. He reiterated his claim that the Millennium Development Goals were demonstrably achievable, and it was only a matter of finding the funding. When a woman near the front asked him about common concerns about the effectiveness of aid and its potential propensity to undermine local governance, he grimaced strongly. He answered her question, angrily asserting that the aid critics had no answers, and that we should only worry about increasing the effectiveness of aid while we scale up our financing.
Most of us that have spent time working in the aid industry might recognise that making aid more effective and doubling aid might not be complementary initiatives. I’ll leave this argument for another day, and finish with one final issue that sprung to mind during his talk:
Sachs seems convinced that much of aid exists to provide goods that are not being properly provided in developing countries, and that global governance should be structured so it provides further financing for this provision. I take issue with this: I think the ultimate goal of the aid system should not be the supply of the sorts of goods (public and otherwise) that are necessary for development. Instead, the ultimate goal of the aid system should be helping recipient governments provide the sorts of goods that are necessary for development.
This distinction is crucial: it’s the difference between approaches which aim for the quickest immediate impact, often bypassing or minimally involving government systems, versus working and supporting recipient governments, and letting them learn to provide the sort of goods that developed, accountable governments should be providing.
I’ll add a link when the talk should is posted up on iTunesU, which should be soon.