In a March 1 op-ed in the Washington Post Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs made his pitch to be the next president of the World Bank promising to “lead the bank into a new era of problem-solving.” John Cavanaugh and Robin Broad have laid out a raft of righteous concerns about Sachs’s candidacy. The “solutions” Sachs proposes to poverty, they point out, can be summed up in the not very-new words: “aid” and “trade.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s Sachs’s other favorite problem solver: population control. That’s taking us to a new era, alright: right back to the nineteenth century of Thomas Malthus.
Sachs presented five Reith lectures titled “Bursting at the Seams” in 2007 in which he hit on several of his proposed solutions, among them trade, aid, new technologies and "stabilizing population." “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." He reiterated that point more forcefully in an op-ed for CNN last October. “How can we enjoy sustainable development on a very crowded planet?” He asked.
Given the options, Sachs’s same-old pro-privatization development policies will be greeted as enlightened, none so more than his position on “reducing fertility.” He’s not promoting mandatory sterilization, after all, and he’s in tune with a growing crowd that’s recycling old population myths for the new save-the-planet context. But while growing population in poor countries certainly has its environmental impacts, globally, high level consumption lifestyles in rich countries are doing much more damage. The average consumer worldwide eats up 22kg of resources each day. The average African consumes less than half that while the average American consumers almost ten times the global standard. Bill McKibben’s called first world consumerism not third world population growth enemy number one. The problem is denial and Jeff Sachs’ approach won’t help.
At the Reith lectures, Sachs made clear that he won’t be proposing problem solving that affects his own ilk’s consumption habits. Quizzed about Western greed, he shot back: “I do not believe that the solution to this problem is a massive cutback of our consumption levels or our living standards. “ So it’s back to poor women and their kids.
Around the world, high-level women leaders including former presidents Michelle Bachelet (of Chile) and Mary Robinson (of Ireland) have launched an initiative to focus global attention on women’s expertise and leadership as regards Climate Change and development. Sachs’s focus on women as the “problem” takes us in exactly the opposite direction.
The sad thing is, thousands of genuine development experts were in town the week that Jeff Sachs’s Washington Post piece appeared. As he was basking in the media glow, they were enjoying no money media attention at all at the United Nations’ fifty-sixth Commission on the Status of Women.
MADRE convened a panel of sister organizations—represented by women whom executive director Yifat Susskind introduced as the “world’s foremost rural development experts.” Decide for yourself.
I had a chance to talk with Fatima Ahmed, director of Zenab for Women and Development in Sudan and Rose Cunningham, director of Wangki Tangni, an indigenous women’s group in Nicaragua. (I really, really encourage you to watch this video.)
Asked about the challenges they face, Ahmed and Cunningham talked about climate change, but they talked much more about soil erosion and deforestation driven by rapacious corporations. Top of their list of concerns were war, discrimination and the destruction of indigenous knowledge. Population comes up only in discussion of their communities’ tendency to help and—shock— share with those in trouble. Afterall, development isn’t only about profits and resources, said Cunningham. “It’s also about people and animals.
Putting people first? Now that would really be a new era. How about a woman from the global South for World Bank president?
This post was been amended, 3/18/2012, with sincere apologies to Radhika Balakrishnan. The initial version drew way too heavily on a separate text by her. For more of Balakrishnan”s excellent work see Economic Policy and Human Rights: Holding Governments to Account