Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty

[1] U2 singer Bono has become well-known in recent years for his tireless work to raise awareness of poverty through the “Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa” campaign. Fewer people are aware of the role economist Jeffrey D. Sachs has played in providing the economic grounds for Bono’s work. In his book The End of Poverty, for which Bono wrote the foreword, Sachs argues for the possibility of ending the extreme poverty of those who struggle each day to survive. Through extensive analysis of the reasons why some countries are poor, he concludes that if aid from rich countries is raised to 0.7% of GDP, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) can be achieved and extreme poverty eliminated by 2025. While Sachs’s book has a very strong analytical argument, it lacks some moral considerations necessary for it to be effective. Despite this, it represents an important step in raising awareness and advocacy for the possibility of an end to poverty.

[2] In the early chapters of his book, Sachs describes an approach to development economics that uses a “differential diagnosis” to determine what factors contribute to a country’s poverty and what investments are needed for the country to develop. Drawing from his wife’s experiences as a pediatrician, he claims that development economists should act like physicians in carrying out a “clinical economics” and should accept the ethical responsibility this entails. Economists, he claims, should make “a commitment to be thoroughly steeped in the history, ethnography, politics, and economics of any place where the professional advisor is working.” (1) An approach of this sort requires new ways of learning about development economics, which Sachs illustrates with several country profiles showing how his ideas about economics have developed over time. The remainder of his book addresses the importance and cost of reaching the MDGs worldwide. Sachs argues that the rich countries can and should give the 0.7% of GDP to official development assistance (ODA) that they have already promised in a resolution made by the UN General Assembly in 1970 and in several agreements since. If this ODA were used to make investments indicated by a differential diagnosis of each country’s situation, Sachs claims that it would be more than sufficient to bring about the end of extreme poverty.

[3] Sachs’s method of approaching globalization and development is not the only model present in the world today, but it is distinct in its focus on both development and aid. In her book In Search of the Good Life, Rebecca Todd Peters describes four broad categories of approaches to globalization. She draws the distinction between categories based on the implicit values that back each one, focusing on the aspects of context for moral decision-making, humanity’s telos or goal, and understanding of human flourishing. The four resulting categories are neoliberalism, social development, earthism, and postcolonialism. Sachs’s approach most closely resembles social development as Peters describes it. Social development approaches “share confidence in the neoclassical principles … but also recognize a certain responsibility on the part of governments to protect and care for the most marginalized members of society.” (2) These aspects are reflected in Sachs’s insistence that government aid is needed to help the extreme poor enter world markets, climb the development ladder, and potentially achieve prosperity. Like many who hold the social development perspective, Sachs does not shy away from the fact that economic growth and its benefit are unequally distributed, but this does not lead him to decry the existing economic model. Instead, he argues that those people and nations who have most benefited from globalization should pay their fair share in helping others escape poverty. Sachs’s approach shows humanity’s telos as progress and the good life as having enough of basic needs to avoid suffering, both of which are values common to the social development position. His belief that it is possible to meet basic needs for everyone on the planet spurs him to action, and the idea of progress allows him to envision a “development ladder” that countries can climb. Though Sachs shares these values, he differs from others by largely avoiding discussion of the cultural or social needs of those in poverty. He focuses more on the economic aspects of development, with the implication that if material conditions improve, social and cultural conditions will follow.

[4] The greatest strength of Sachs’s book lies in the depth of his economic analysis. His calculations show that it is theoretically possible to end extreme poverty within the bounds of the relatively small commitment of 0.7% of GDP already made by rich countries. If the necessary investments were made to lift countries out of the “poverty trap” preventing them from entering market-driven development, he claims, the results would be tremendous: fertility and infant mortality rates would decrease; literacy rates (especially of women) would increase; and lifespan would increase. Sachs’ outrage at the ongoing neglect of the poor, which is the driving force behind his book, becomes even more poignant in light of the facts he presents. If ending extreme poverty is possible, he finds it inexcusable not to do so. His book may serve to raise consciousness of poverty and, especially in conjunction with Bono’s campaign, may spur people to take the sorts of actions he proposes.

[5] Though Sachs’s analysis is convincing, his reliance upon his audience to act according to what is rational may not be enough to cause a significant shift in the actions people take towards eliminating poverty. He argues that eliminating poverty is the logical result of Enlightenment-era philosophies, calling it “Enlightened Globalization.” (3) Like these thinkers, he believes “that despite human irrationality and passions, human reason can still be harnessed … to solve basic problems of social organization and to improve human welfare.” (4) By implication, those who do not agree with a reason-based approach are “opponents,” “critics,” “pundits,” and “wrong, dangerously so.” (5) Yet Sachs often expresses amazement that action is not being taken on commitments made on the basis of rational deliberation. Often, those who see a need simply refuse to act upon it. As he notes, “It was not that U.S. officials rejected the diagnosis [of the need for aid in Africa] — they knew it was needed — but the political leadership was not willing to pay the price.” (6) The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria — the example he gives of the success of “analytical deliberation” — illustrates that the collective rationality of a group of well-educated, intelligent people can create good plans but not necessarily implement them; as Sachs explains, “the continuing battle has been to get the resources the fund needs on a long-term reliable basis.” (7) Sachs is right to claim that destructive emotions can prevent people from acting according to reason. However, he neglects to address constructive passions, such as his own sense of moral outrage, which can motivate people to carry out the course of action reason dictates. Though he notes that actions against slavery, colonialism, and racism all shared the characteristic of appealing to “enlightened self-interest as well as basic religious and ethical precepts,” he does not include any religious appeal and is not explicit about ethical precepts that could harness the constructive passions that drive many people. (8) Without the commitment such passions can inspire, even the best plans may ultimately fail.

[6] One form of constructive passion may be a sense of personal connection resulting from direct interaction with the most vulnerable persons of the world. Sachs bemoans the fact that global poverty is invisible in American society and notes that “[m]ost people are unaware of the daily struggles for survival.” (9) His book details the situations many in extreme poverty face, and in this way it is successful in raising awareness. However, his proposed solution depends on the actions of governments and donations from the very rich, while doing little to address the role of the average American citizen. Under his approach, the main change the average citizen would need to make would be a slight increase in taxes, a step that would allow them to remain detached from the needs of the poor. Even a call to petition the government for change is largely absent from his book; the “we” of Sachs’s rhetoric appears to be primarily those who are in positions to directly affect government policy. While policy-makers play an important role, without advocacy and support from citizens, those in power are unlikely to change their actions. Because Sachs does not emphasize the connection between the actions of citizens of rich nations and the situations of those in poverty, his approach focuses on those governments and individuals in places of power without requiring average U.S. citizens to examine their own actions. Only in the final paragraphs of the book does he call on individuals to “make a personal commitment,” and he does not provide any further details. (10)

[7] In a similar way, Sachs’s approach does not give most citizens of countries receiving aid a voice in determining what actions their country should take to combat extreme poverty. It has a weakness common to the social development approach, lacking a democratization of power. Sachs’s country-specific “differential diagnosis” and his insistence that countries design their own plans to meet the MDGs is an improvement over the previous approach, exemplified by the IMF and structural adjustment programs, of applying the same set of policies to every country. However, it does not involve consultation with the communities and people affected by these plans. As Sachs acknowledges, the poor know “the nature of their predicament, whether it [is] the absence of anti-AIDS drugs or antimalarial bed nets, or fertilizers, or mobile phones.” (11) Communities in poverty are therefore capable of informing governments of their most pressing needs, making it possible to tailor a country’s plan for using foreign direct investment in the most effective manner. To those people and communities who have been marginalized by the prevailing model of globalization, plans to reach the MDGs that they do not participate in creating may appear to be neocolonialism disguised as aid. As Miguel De La Torre remarks in Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins, “Only from the margins of power and privilege can a fuller and more comprehensive understanding of the prevailing social structures be ascertained… [T]hose on the margins … know what it means to be a marginalized person attempting to survive within a social context designed to benefit the privileged few at their expense.”1 Without hearing the voices of the most vulnerable, it is not possible to fully understand what can be done and what is needed to bring about the liberation of the poor from the bondage of the poverty trap.

[8] While Sachs is consistent in emphasizing the need for rich nations to help poor nations escape the poverty trap, in some cases his recommendations and priorities seem inconsistent or contradictory. This is particularly true in the case of the environmental effects of his recommendations. He notes the environmental dangers of chemical pollution but praises the Green Revolution and expresses his hope that a similar movement could take place in Africa, failing to acknowledge that the types of seeds that made the Green Revolution possible often require fertilizers and pesticides, which can have harmful effects on the environment. Similarly, he notes that “the major cause of long-term climate change, fossil fuel combustion, is disproportionately the result of rich-country actions” and argues that “we must face the ongoing challenge of investing in the global sustainability of the world’s ecosystems,” but he does not recognize that this environmental degradation is a consequence of the path for development he proposes. (13f.) In Sachs’s presentation, environmental sustainability seems to be a concern primarily for those at the top of the development ladder. Like sweatshops, the environmental degradation accompanying industrialization is by implication a necessary aspect of “the first rung on the ladder out of extreme poverty.” (15) However, this is not necessarily true; many innovations have been made that allow development to proceed in ways that are environmentally sustainable. Because he does not emphasize these methods, Sachs’s discussion of environmental concerns rings somewhat hollow.

[9] Sachs’ book, in combination with Bono’s campaign, brings to the forefront the issue of extreme poverty, a topic often neglected in the American public discourse. His in-depth analysis and passion on behalf of the poor bring a challenge: the possibility of ending extreme poverty by 2025. Unfortunately, his approach addresses neither the average American citizen nor the communities directly affected by aid. Without mobilizing and empowering these people, his approach may be ineffective, both in obtaining funds and distributing them. However, if the voices of all people are heard, it may be possible to see the end of extreme poverty in our time. In the difficult task of working to end poverty, the passions of all humans — rich and poor, policy-makers and citizens — must be aroused to ensure that development progresses in a way grounded in sustainability and justice. While The End of Poverty is lacking in some crucial elements, it is a step in the direction of facing this necessary challenge.


1. (New York, Orbis Books, 2004) 12.

Gretchen Zelle

Gretchen Zelle is a graduate of Luther College, Decorah, Iowa.