There may be worse candidates for the presidency of the World Bank than Jeffrey Sachs (Larry Summers, also a candidate, comes to mind,) but Sachs is well worth raising an alarm about. He combines a newfangled profile as a progressive with policies that amount to full steam ahead for global growth. And he’s running as the candidate of “change” clearly hoping no one looks too closely at his record as an economic hit-man.
In the US (if not in much of the rest of the world) Sachs’s closeness with the singer/crusader Bono bestows a liberal glow. He directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University, advises the UN and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and he’s winning endorsements from among others, Congressman John Conyers and economist Mark Weisbrot. He’ll attract predictable opposition from the Right who bristle at any mention of foreign aid, but although his media pals like to forget it now, Sachs was once evangelist number one for exactly the heavy-handed “fly-in-fly-out” development tactics that have made the world financial institutions so passionately hated.
Last week, John Cavanaugh of the Institute for Policy Studies and American University development professor Robin Broad laid out a raft of concerns to which Sachs responded thus: “I would be the first-ever development practitioner and anti-poverty professional to be World Bank President, just what is needed given the bank’s mission of a “world free of poverty.”
In Europe’s post-Soviet “transition” years, Sachs’s professional poverty expertise was mostly in increasing it. Russia, following Sachs’s callous “shock therapy” prescription, sold off state companies, suspended public subsidies and drove employment and life expectancy into the ground, with brutal long-term consequences, exacting the most savage costs in terms of death and suffering since the Second World War and the results of the Sachs experiment in Poland, Estonia and Slovenia weren’t much better. While a handful of global gamblers got rich of the disaster, former World Bank economist David Ellerman, said of Sachs “Only the mixture of American triumphalism and the academic arrogance of neoclassical economics could produce such a lethal dose of gall.” If Sachs could double suicide rates in Russia as a cocky young Harvard advisor, it’s hard to imagine what he could to the world as World Bank President.
In recent years, Sachs has taken a few turns. He embraces debt forgiveness (some) and has some nasty things to say about world military spending in his book “the End of Poverty.” But the business of “poverty reduction” is a complex one. The World Bank’s calculations have been incisively discussed here by Adam Parsons. Suffice to say, there’s extreme poverty and there’s just getting by. In the same way when it comes to development, there’s total exclusion from the world economy — and there’s becoming a cog in it. Sachs’s vision of a “world free of poverty” has more cogs in more wheels, but it’s the same deadly machine driving the planet to the same nasty brink.
To cite one example. in his 2007 Reith lecture series “Bursting at the Seams” Sachs pushes new agricultural technology and commercial fertilizers to increase yields in low-life expectancy countries. “Africa can and must have a Green Revolution as India initiated nearly forty years ago.” He celebrates increased yields and dismisses concerns about environmental damage and rising debt, claiming that “Older techniques for replenishing soil nutrients, such as the rotation of farm lands, allowing the replenishment of nutrients on land left to fallow for 10 or 20 years, are no longer feasible.” To top things off, there’s a dose of “population control” in Sachs’s mix. “The evidence is overwhelming that it’s possible and necessary to have a rapid demographic transition on a voluntary basis to greatly reduce fertility rates in poor countries,” said Sachs.
Old arguments linking high population with high poverty are back in vogue in the context of contemporary planet-panic, but really, they miss the point. While growing population in poor countries has its environmental impacts, high-level consumption lifestyles in rich countries are much more of an immediate threat. Listen the small scale farmers of countries like Mali and Burkina Faso who gathered at the World Social Forum in Kenya a few years back and they report that traditional farming techniques like fortifying soil with manure and mixing the crops grown on the same piece of land are rehabilitating degraded farms and farmers, both. Lying fallow for a generation doesn’t come up.
It’s here that one sees the “old” Sachs in the new. To return to Ellerman – the analysts of “shock therapy” have long gotten it wrong, he writes in an essay, Lessons from Eastern Europe’s Voucher Privatization. In the post-Soviet states, the crucial distinction wasn’t so much between the fast-shockers and the incrementalists, rather, Ellerman points out, “Reform-mongers, in their strategies and even more so in their rhetoric, could be divided into those who take an ideological, fundamental, and root-and-branch approach versus those who take an incremental, piecemeal, home-grown, and adaptive approach.” From what he says now about global agribusiness it seems that not much has changed in Sachs’s approach to the adaptive, home-grown initiative — even as the sane world is increasingly convinced that those are the only strategies with any chance of heading the planet in a healthier direction.
The fact that he’s campaigning for the World Bank job as the candidate of the new regime makes all this particularly hard to take. Since Paul Wolfowitz resigned under a cloud in 2007, new rules at the World Bank are finally permitting countries than the US and Europe to determine who heads the world’s financial institutions (since world war two it’s been the World Bank for the US, and a European at the IMF). Europe nominated Christine Lagarde for IMF president last year. She won over other candidates. For the World Bank post, the U.S. has quietly floated names like Susan Rice, John Kerry and Larry Summers to replace Robert Zoellick when he steps down June 30. Predicting he won’t be the US’s official pick, Sachs has gotten seven countries to endorse him, including Haiti, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia and east Timor.
By March 23, we’ll know how all this plays out. Meanwhile, according to the open-source website, WorldBankPresident.org which is tracking these developments, a slate of countries with new financial capacity to compete with the US are taking steps to form a World Bank alternative. Quite possibly, at a meeting in India later this month, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa may set up their own development bank with the goal, they say, ”to escape the dollar and the euro hegemonies and, if Chinese plans go well, making the yuan a global currency.” We’ll see what Sachs has to say about that adaptive initiative.
LAURA FLANDERS is the host of The Laura Flanders Show coming to public television stations later this year. She was the host and founder of GRITtv.org. Follow her on Twitter: @GRITlaura.