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Towards the End of Poverty: A Manifesto – by Jeffrey D. Sachs

The End of PovertyThe End of Poverty by Jeffrey D. Sachs

My Rating★★★☆☆

Towards the End of Poverty: A Manifesto

The difference between a solid policy prescription book and an evocative manifesto is hard to make out if it is an economist writing it. I should have known which side this would fall on once I saw that the introduction was by Bono, but I let the forceful and articulate Bono force me into buying this one. In the store, Bono’s righteous anger was infectious and the book could not be put down. It sounded like a moral obligation:

Fifteen thousand people dying needlessly every day from AIDS, TB, and malaria. Mothers, fathers, teachers, farmers, nurses, mechanics, children. This is Africa’s crisis.

That it’s not on the nightly news, that we do not treat this as an emergency—that’s our crisis.

Sachs has often come into some criticism for advocating a too-simple model. But, perhaps the point is that one has to take his prescriptions as those of a reformist, of an evangelist, of one who is willing to put his reputation on the line to get the ball rolling. He is okay to work out the details later. His prime interest is to convince the world that progress in the fight against poverty is possible, and that depends on giving them a believable model, a get-go plan.

The model he presents is the Ladder of Development. This is the easy and feel-good model, the one for the headlines. The more realistic prescription is hidden inside. It is what he calls ‘Clinical Economics’. This review wont be covering that. Another interesting part of the book is Sachs’ analysis of China. It is an insightful take on why socialism failed in Russia but flourished in China. It is worth a read, but again won’t be covered in this review since it will take away from the forcefulness of the main thrust. The reviewer is determined to be a disciple of Sachs in this respect.

In the simple model, Sachs tells us that there exists a Ladder of Development. It is made of many successive rungs that have to be climbed to reach where the developed world currently is. The Ladder is not a normal ladder, the rungs are not equally spaced – they get closer together as you climb higher. So that it gets easier and easier to climb the higher you are. This is illustrated by countries who were poor only a few decades ago but had so called ‘economic miracles’. To Sachs, there was nothing miraculous about it, it was all about getting high enough in the ladder for the growth to be self-sustaining.

The very hardest part of economic development, according to Sachs, is getting the first foothold on this Ladder. This is so because, true to its peculiar nature, the lowest rung of the Ladder is very high off the ground. Most of the poor countries cannot easily reach there. If only they could, they would then be climbing as if they were born ladder-climbers, Sachs is sure. Economic development works. It can be successful. It tends to build on itself. But it must get started.

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This is where the ones on top of the Ladder has to step in. This is where the role of aid, the crux of Sachs’ advocacy, becomes crucial. If the developed nations could just pull these countries on to the First Rung and perhaps even hold their hand for the next few rungs, we could soon be at The End of Poverty.

So, the rich countries should stop obsessing over trivialities (too much economic thinking, Sachs says, has been directed at the wrong question—how to make the poor countries into textbook models of good governance or efficient market economies) and focus on making sure that every country is safely on the Ladder. All the squabbling and fighting happens when they can’t get on it and focus all their abundant energies towards the exciting adventure of climbing it. Once they are on that task, other peripheral aspects of development would follow naturally. So stop breaking your head over it and get on the real task – this is Sachs radioing the world, loud and clear.

Sachs sees the Ladder and knows that a better world is there for the taking. He sees that much of the world is focused on comparatively trivial things when they could be saving lives and ending misery. That is why Sachs is angry. And this book is the result. It leaves little doubt about the duty of this generation. Sachs is supposed to be most important economist of this generation, and based on his results, he might indeed be. There is definitely no doubt that he is the loudest (especially with Bono for company). You can question his approach, but not his passion.

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Posted by on November 22, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Civilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

Civilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of NatureCivilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

My Rating★★★★☆

The eloquent historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has clearly meant this book to be a counter-proposal to the geographic determinism espoused by scholars such as Jared Diamond. And for the most part he does an admirable job of convincing the reader that ‘civilization’, as defined by him, is a truly random and almost inevitable accretion wherever human societies develop. Even though he agrees that geography has always been a vital factor in any civilization’s progress, thus providing ammunition for the “geography is destiny’ cry of the determinists, he also quickly pulls that argument down.

In Armesto’s vision, the geography a civilization finds itself in, or the latitude to be more accurate, is not a determining factor in its history, but a limiting factor in their growth. It is something to be overcome, a basic tenet of the ‘civilizing impulse’ that Armesto believes is a part of all of mankind – the desire to modify the environment as much as possible. To show that geography can be transcended thus, he takes us on a long tour that encompasses all the major geographic niches that the earth has to offer – spanning the frigid snow-lands, the arid deserts, the sultry tropics, the gloomy marshes, the cloudy highlands, the loamy riversides, the stormy coastal areas and the lonely islands – and shows magnificent examples of stunning civilizational attempts that flourished and faded on those vastly different habitats in every latitude of the world. The current predominance of certain civilizations is less than a few centuries old, and could just be a freak of history; after all quite a few civilizations that were less strategically placed geographically have had longer reigns in the past. Armesto makes a compelling case and argues that a lot of things go into the cauldron that spawns civilization and to limit the explanation to any single ingredient is clearly an over simplification.

But then, Armesto too is a historian and like all historians, unfortunately, he cannot avoid trying to construct a story that can explain the present from the past. Why write a history book if it has no thesis to offer on how things got this way? So Armesto proposes his own counter-thesis: Though he struggles throughout the book to avoid any kind of determinism, he goes on to admit in his concluding argument that “geography, in the broadest sense, the palpable realities of the planet, the exigencies of nature, the soils and seeds, the winds and waves has shaped the world presented in these pages.”

He says that even though civilizations might have grown out of their environments of origin, they have been borne by the wind. This forms his principal argument of the book, and it takes shape only at the very end, catching the reader by surprise, after lulling him into the belief that civilizations are a chaotic emergent phenomena of complex human interactions. I would have liked him to stop there and I really don’t buy his causation arguments that make up the last 100 odd pages of the book. But, they are still compelling and thought-provoking and deserves to be presented too.

The crux of Armesto’s final argument then is that instead of the 10,000 BC that Diamond takes to be the point of divergence that led to the current state of the world, Armesto chooses 1490 AD (or the 1490s) as the diverging year that scripted the story of modern colonizations and formed our present. Armesto claims that the unique location of the ‘Western Civilization”, which he prefers to call the “Atlantic Civilization” along with their extremely fine timing to choose their moment for civilizational expansion was what contributed to their world domination – a case of luck and industry going hand in hand. The Europeans, he argues, were always backward in terms of technology, especially sea-faring tech, in comparison to China, India and even the Ottomans,.While they had trade across the Mediterranean (inherited from the Romans), the Atlantic was largely an unexplored territory even while the Indian Ocean had established itself as the preeminent, busiest and most profitable trade route in history. This was due to the fact that the civilizations that rimmed the Indian Ocean enjoyed the Monsoon winds which helped in promoting trade and making travel safe, fast and orderly, with its cyclic nature and seasonal reversal – aiding ships to and fro in their travels.

The unidirectional and turbulent winds of the Atlantic were much harder to decode, especially by sailors anxious about how they would ever make it back if they hitched a ride on these winds that never returned. Armesto claims that the Indian Ocean was so busy and so rewarding that it used up all the available resources (ships) in its own internal trade and the rich nations there had no reason to risk the treacherous voyage to the Atlantic and to Western Europe. The Western Europeans on the other hand, wanted to be in on the high-return trade of the Indian Ocean and was willing to take risks, and over time they decoded the cipher that is the Trade Winds of the Atlantic and eventually learned how to link the two wind systems (trade winds and the monsoon) when Vasco da Gama finally reached Calicut. Armesto says:

That may be the simple reason why Vasco da Gama appeared in Calicut, before an Indian or Arab or Chinese or Indonesian merchant “discovered” Europe by sea, despite the superior equipment and longer tradition enjoyed by the seafarers of the East. It was not because of any superiority on the Europeans part but, on the contrary, because of the urgings of a kind of inferiority: laggards have to catch up. In pursuit of the kind of advice Lazarillo de Tormes got from his mother, “the relatively poor reach out to the relatively rich in the hope that something will rub off”

This along with Columbus linking Europe to the New World set in motion the period in which Atlantic took over as the oceanic center of trade, catapulting all the countries on its rim (Armesto calls them the Rimlands) first into financial security, then trade dominance, then imperial eminence and finally into a common civilizational bowl. This western civilization coalesced into a single gel and then set about trying to remake the rest of the world in its image, borne by the new-found winds, and fueled by missionary zeal; infecting the coastal regions first and gradually encroaching inwards. The consequence was the creation of a single Atlantic civilization which spanned both shores of the ocean. In the seventeenth century, this inchoate civilization came to embrace North as well as Central and South America, and Africa as well as Europe, steadily seeping into the rest of the world as well.

That then is Armesto’s thesis, except for the concluding chapter which sketches a possible future in which the power base shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, thus altering everything again. This is not as believable since the world we know today is not shaped by marine trade as much as the world of the East India Companies.

This scholarly and poetic work tries to give us the history of civilization by giving us glimpses of the images that were the high-watermarks of each of the great civilizations that has graced this world. It is evocative of the splendor of these ancient wonders, even while being more descriptive than narrative. The sheer ease with which Armesto manages to make us feel that we are traveling with a Marco Polo or an Ibn Batutta of our own, enjoying the rise and fall of Rome, pondering the mysterious disappearances of the central American cultures, navigating the glory of Venice in its prime and shuddering at the all-conquering Ottomans bearing down on us – all these experiences ensures that the laborious and careful reading that a book like this demands is entirely worth the effort. Armesto’s masterpiece leaves you with a sense that you have witnessed history in all its nebulousness and that there is no history, no single narrative that can ever be told. It can only be glimpsed and appreciated, never understood.

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Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Revisiting The Heart of Darkness

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After passing past that Castle of Ego,

Laying siege on the very borders of Mind,

We entered the vast and bristling forests,

Of that strange, strange land, that Id,

Which doth divide the knowing, waking,

From the land of dreaming, unknowing.

But this way is much too hard to follow;

And is harder even to describe to you:

We are more likely here to perish,

Here in these vast, dense hinterlands;

For these woods that we see arrayed,

Has never previously been crossed,

By mortal men or by Gods before,

Except by the Duke, on his missions,

To plunder and to subjugate.

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He had sliced a path so wide and true,

For himself and his army vast,

Marking along the trees as he trode,

Deeper and deeper into these woods,

Holding fast to his own marks,

And to the crude compasses of his day,

Wary of the beasts and birds,

And of dark shadows of the serpents,

And the importunities of bugs and bites.

Vexed he was by silence and dark,

But angered more by lonely shrieks.

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So we move on in this path of old;

Those old trees that the Duke had marked,

Now but marshy ground to mire our carts,

When will we cross these woods so dark,

And reach the sparkle at the other end?

That river which we truly seek,

That drowned the Duke and freed the Mind,

That river so cool, called Sanity.

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This poem was Inspired By:

Heart of Darkness (Everyman's Library, #174)

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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

My Rating★★★★★
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Posted by on March 12, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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