Jewish World Review May 21, 2002 /10 Sivan, 5762
Geography does matter when it comes to development, but aid must nonetheless be linked to good governance
Two centuries ago, a scholar named Thomas Robert Malthus wrote that the world was bound to starve, since our ability to produce food simply couldn't keep up with our baby production. The former trend was arithmetic, the latter geometric. Malthus also happened to be a Church of England curate, and infused his portrayal of inevitable famine with religious fervour.
These days Malthus would seem to be thoroughly debunked, not only by better farming but also by the general increase in economic productivity. Moore's Law, which says that the processing power of computers will double ever eighteen months, is in its way an answer to Malthus.
Still, we have our modern Malthusians, especially among the international development and aid crowd. Since September 11, many of them have been focusing, Malthus-like, on the rising population growth of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and arguing that - without serious expansion of development aid - this growth will lead to global disaster.
Even economists who formerly limited their arguments to the terms of mundane macroeconomics and microeconomic fundamentals now speak of the importance of aid, education, and geographic destiny.
A case in point is Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard, the great development doctor of the 1990s. From his "shock therapy" for Poland to his work in Bolivia, Prof Sachs put his mark on the post-Cold War economies. But he was mostly concerned with fiscal and monetary policies, not social work.
Now Mr Sachs feels differently. He says that it is time to face to the fact that governments' economic adjustments alone won't rectify the developing world's problems.
Responding to an email from me, he explained why: "Remoteness can be a death knell. This is certainly one of the reasons why development hasn't worked in many of the poorest places in the world - the Andean altiplano, the landlocked countries of the African Sahel, the remote regions of Central Asia."
And Malthus? "Malthus was wrong on the global scale, but was certainly right on the local scale in some parts of the world -- especially impoverished rural regions cut off from technological progress."
In Prof Sachs's view, economists and world leaders have sinned by ignoring these problems (and perhaps supposing that economic growth would make all things right). The West should have devoted greater resources to foreign aid.
"We faked it for 20 years", he says, "pretending to be fighting epidemic disease and illiteracy, but giving a pittance of real aid to the poorest countries that really needed it." Now it's time, to his mind, to rectify our failings. This year he is moving to a new post at Columbia University's Earth Institute, an appropriate-sounding home for his new geographical approach.
The aid battle is one Prof Sachs and his pals are likely to win, given the new pro-development mood. But are they really as fatalist as they seem? Prof Sachs says "no" - and that he is a realist. "I'm NOT a geographical determinist," he wrote to me. "I'm trying to stress that things are more complicated than usually seen. Middle income and rich countries tend to grow, but very poor countries do not.
"There are indeed at least three reasons:
1. They are badly governed (Zimbabwe, no doubt)
2. They are acutely distressed by virtue of geography (landlocked highland countries, remoteness in general from major markets and sea lanes...)
3, They are trapped in poverty, in the sense that countries with very low levels of human capital (health, education, accumulated skills), very poor nutrition, very low technological productivity (and the other stresses that I just mentioned), typically have extremely low saving rates, since people are living at subsistence. It's like an individual surviving on 1500 Kcal per day, without the energy reserve to be productive. This poses a trap..."
It is hard to disagree with these points. Geography can indeed be a trap. Indeed, the sad truth is that commodity-rich regions are often as likely to produce poverty or war as commodity-poor ones.
But one danger in the new Malthusianism is its emphatic focus on geography. One has the feeling that governance is going to be left out of the picture by brains less subtle than Prof. Sachs's. They will merely focus on the emotional side of this story, and back the Bono-style pouring of aid into poor places, regardless of whether the nasty regimes use that aid to snap up Mercedes for themselves (or to buy children's sexual favours, as was recently reported of one African country.)
A second danger is that multilateral organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme will use the new crisis mood as an excuse for mission creep. In other words, the money will really be, in good measure about enlarging these entities and their programmes. Here one has to ask: does a more powerful UNDP really mean there will be less hunger in places where politics, and not Malthusian food shortages, are really the cause of malnutrition?
This does not mean that geography does not matter at all: as Mr Sachs wrote me, "It does not pay for Nike to produce shoes in Burundi" - Burundi is simply in the wrong location, and may always need more help than some other countries. Malnourished children matter too. The reality though is that we cannot emote our way to world stability and healthy schoolchildren in the developing world, no matter how sorry we feel for them.
Like this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times
. Her latest book is
The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.
05/14/02: The increasing number of new claims is hurting innocent companies and making a mockery of the Common Law system
05/09/02: Aid, development and guilt in our times of terror
04/30/02: Wine lovers may at last be able to stray across state borders. The Internet is coming to the aide of free trade
04/23/02: Taxation by way of Madison Avenue
04/17/02: Special relationships and free trade do not mix
04/08/02: Is terror the flip side of globalization?
03/20/02 Bush gives aid but seeks results
03/13/02 The Danger in policy by numbers
02/26/02: States' smokescreen for tax hypocrisy
02/20/02: Echoes of leadership against a global threat
02/13/02: Jackson Vanik May be a Useful Analogy When Thinking About the Middle East
02/07/02: Budgeting for victory: Requiem for a peace dividend
02/05/02: The detectives of 1930s pulp fiction had a nose for clients bearing gifts. Sadly, those consulted by Enron did not
01/22/02: Allow all American children a decent chance
01/15/02: Do not disturb the profit-sharing revolution
01/09/02: It is dangerous to elevate a currency as a political emblem if the need for other economic reforms is obscured
01/03/02: There is only one way for a free thinker to bring up children
12/20/01: Why America's economy always bounces back
12/18/01: When it comes to taxes, Washington lawmakers can learn a thing or two from The Honeymooners
12/13/01: Bush opens a new era
12/12/01: A flamboyant reversal for the Democratic party
12/06/01: Threat of an oil embargo on the U.S. is a bluff
11/29/01: Which is more important--the war or diplomatic comity?
11/20/01: Unbalanced by a wealth of oil and diamonds
10/17/01: Afghanistan Needs a General MacArthur
09/27/01: The US has gained an understanding of the costs of war for which its European allies have hitherto wished in vain
09/13/01: War against terrorism will rise from the ashes
08/15/01: Geography is no excuse for the state's economic stagnation. Its policymakers should take a leaf from Ireland's book
08/07/01: Teamsters may pay a heavy price for winning its batle in Congress
07/25/01: Towards a patent-free nirvana?
07/17/01: History proves the lasting value of tax cuts
07/10/01: Stem cell research has awakened a bitter debate in Washington but voters care more about other electoral issues
07/03/01: America foots the bill for Europe's largesse
06/26/01: America the litigious, land of the lawyer's fee
06/20/01: Five reasons for gloom about global growth
06/18/01: Show pity for Alice in Tax Wonderland
06/13/01: America must take a French lesson in trade
06/11/01: Time to dream the impossible dream for Iraq
06/07/01: Whatever happened to simple?
06/04/01: When the relationship between companies becomes as close as a marriage, the eventual break-up is often very painful
06/01/01: Loving and hating the Bush tax bill
05/30/01: Will Grisham soon be unemployed? In America's courts these days, there's no room left over for legal fiction
05/22/01: Republicans sample the rhetoric of confidence
05/16/01: Boeing has been promised $60m to site its headquarters in Illinois. The deal looks a poor one for taxpayers
05/14/01: Adam Smith in love
05/09/01: Those rotten Russian capitalists
05/07/01: Why tax havens provide shelter for everyone
05/04/01: Middle classes pay for get-the-rich folly
05/01/01: Money can't buy happiness? Think again.
04/26/01: Calling America's rogues and entrepreneurs
04/19/01: High earners right to feel lonely at the top
04/11/01: The right must learn the comfort of strangers
04/04/01: When domestic law arrives by the back door
03/30/01: A Lexus tax cut suits the jalopy driver
03/27/01: The unchallenged dominance of King Dollar
03/20/01: Natural selection of an intellectual aristocracy
03/16/01: The hidden danger of a regulatory recession
03/14/01: Is the American condition that boring? Why so many Oscar nominated movies aren't set in America
03/07/01: Trampling on the theory of path dependence
03/05/01: Fighting the good fight
03/01/01: It is time for Fannie and Freddie to grow up
02/27/01: IT's important
02/22/01: The guilty conscience of America's millionaires
02/14/01: The benefits of helping the 'rich'
02/09/01: The Danger and Promise of the Bush Schools Plan
02/05/01: Crack and Compassion
01/31/01: Debt is good
01/24/01: A gloomy end for a half-hearted undertaking
01/17/01: The challenge of an ally with its own mind
01/15/01: An unexpected American family portrait
01/10/01: A fitting legacy for America's beloved dictator
01/08/01: The trick of tax 'convenience'
01/03/01: Time to stop blaming Greenspan over taxes
12/11/00: So smart they're dumb
12/06/00: How economic bad news came good for Bush
12/04/00: The Boies factor
11/30/00: "The inevitable demands for recounts erupted like acne…"
11/28/00: Fair play and the rules of the electoral game
11/23/00: The shining prospect beyond a cloudy election
11/21/00: Try the Cleveland model
11/16/00: A surprising winner emerges in the US election
11/09/00: Those powerful expats
What's right for America versus what works
11/02/00: Time to turn off big government's autopilot
10/30/00: Canada beating America in financial sensibility
10/26/00: When progressiveness leads to backwardness
10/24/00: The most accurate poll
10/19/00: The Middle East tells us the hawks were right
10/17/00: The split personalities of America's super rich
10/10/00: 'Equity Rights' or Wake up and Smell the Starbucks
10/04/00: Trapped in the basement of global capitalism
09/21/00: The final act of a grand presidential tragedy
09/21/00: Europeans strike back at the fuel tax monster. Should Americans follow?
09/18/00: First steps to success
09/13/00: America rejects the human rights transplant
09/07/00: Minimum wage, maximum cost
09/05/00: Prudent Al Gore plans some serious spending
08/31/00: A revolution fails to bring power to the people
08/28/00: A reali$tic poll
08/21/00: "I Goofed"
08/16/00: Part of the union, but not part of the party
08/09/00: Silicon Alley Secrets
08/02/00: Radical Republicans warm up for Philadelphia
07/31/00: I'll Cry if I Want To
07/27/00: Cold warrior of the new world
07/25/00: The Estate Tax will drop dead
07/18/00: Shooting down the anti-missile defence myths
07/14/00: A convenient punchbag for America's leaders
07/07/00: How to destroy the pharmaceutical industry
07/05/00: Patriots and bleeding hearts
06/30/00: Candidates beware: New Washington consensus on robust growth stands the old wisdom on its head
06/28/00: White America's flight to educational quality
06/26/00: How Hillary inspired the feminist infobabes
© 2001, Financial Times