Foreign Policy Blogs

Jeffrey Sachs – Common Wealth

The astoundingly influential economist and development guru Jeffrey Sachs has a new book coming out next week. It is called Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, and has laudatory blurbs by both Al Gore and Kofi Annan. Sachs is a great writer, and although I sometimes disagree with him (among other issues I disagree with his assertion that poor governance and corruption aren't a significant factor in global poverty) his work is always useful. I also think his view of a world that can save itself is inspiring.

As a further reason to pay attention to this book, Sachs is such a big name that it probably won't matter if Common Wealth is a terrible book. It will be the biggest development discussion of 2008 anyway. The theme of the book is that humanity as a whole faces a series of potentially devastating challenges, but that each of them can be addressed if we have the will: extreme poverty, environmental degradation, population growth, and international political logjams.

His think piece for Time magazine, which is also titled “Common Wealth” and tackles many of these same issues, gives examples of human ingenuity and technology solving global problems. One of these examples is the eradication of small pox. To me this represents very well the technocratic, engineering style that Sachs advocates.

Small pox eradication was a very special case where the human technology of vaccination was well matched to the nature of the virus. By applying a lot of pure brute force (this was in the grand old days when international public health officials got to fly around in helicopters) and a whole lot of money, the problem was solved. There was relatively little need to worry about societies or their systems or ways of life. There was basically no need to worry about sustainability, or small pox coming back. The four problems Sachs takes on are much more complex.

The Time piece was pretty short, and he didn't have the space to address every aspect of his argument. I’m looking forward to reading how he addresses this problem when he has a whole book to lay out his plans.

PS: Slate is running a detailed conversation between Sachs and Martin Wolf.



Kevin Dean

Kevin Dean is a graduate student pursuing a master's degree in international conflict management and humanitarian emergencies at Georgetown University. Before returning to school in Fall 2006, he spent six years working in the former Soviet Union - most of that time spent in Central Asia. He has managed a diverse range of international development programs for the US State Department and USAID. He has also consulted for several UN agencies and international NGOs, and is fluent in Russian. Kevin is originally from Des Moines, Iowa and studied Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Iowa.