Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sachs vs. Easterly over MDGs, again!

Jeffrey Sachs bats for “multi-donor pooled funding that has clear timelines, objectives and accountability”.

We need a major change of funding toward pooled donor funding. Bilateral aid would remain, but mainly to promote demonstration efforts and innovations. The core of assistance would use pooled mechanisms to scale up what has been proven to work, avoiding fragmentation and poor accountability. Indeed, there are moves in this direction: a new maternal and child health initiative to be agreed this week saw African leaders specifically request that the support should come through the Global Fund. Similarly, infrastructure funding could be scaled up through new public-private financing pools for roads, rail and power, via the World Bank and African Development Bank.

William Easterly mocks Sachs and argues that only trade-fuelled growth can help the world’s poor. He thinks that private sector is the one that will help in reducing poverty, not aid.

This is all the more misguided because trade-fuelled growth not only decreases poverty, but also indirectly helps all the other MDGs. Yet in the US alone, the violations of the trade goal are legion. US consumers have long paid about twice the world price for sugar because of import quotas protecting about 9,000 domestic sugar producers. The European Union is similarly guilty.

Equally egregious subsidies are handed out to US cotton producers, which flood the world market, depressing export prices. These hit the lowest-cost cotton producers in the global economy, which also happen to be some of the poorest nations on earth: Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad.

According to an Oxfam study, eliminating US cotton subsidies would “improve the welfare of over one million West African households – 10 million people – by increasing their incomes from cotton by 8 to 20 per cent”.

To be fair, the US government has occasionally tried to promote trade with poor countries, such as under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a bipartisan effort over the last three presidents to admit African exports duty free. Sadly, however, even this demonstrates the indifference of US trade policy towards the poor.

The biggest success story was textile exports from Madagascar to the US – but the US kicked Madagascar out of the AGOA at Christmas 2009. The excuse for this tragic debacle was that Madagascar was failing to make progress on democracy; an odd excuse given the continued AGOA eligibility of Cameroon, where the dictator Paul Biya has been in power for 28 violent years. Angola, Chad and even the Democratic Republic of the Congo are also still in. The Madagascan textile industry, meanwhile, has collapsed.

It is already clear that the goals will not be met by their target date of 2015. One can already predict that the ruckus accompanying this failure will be loud about aid, but mostly silent about trade. It will also be loud about the failure of state actions to promote development, but mostly silent about the lost opportunities to allow poor countries’ efficient private businesspeople to lift themselves out of poverty.

This kind of ideological battle will be fought for a long time to come. Similar form of battle was fought in the past, is being fought right now, and will be continued in the future. In a way, both are right, and both are wrong. Sometimes ideology blinds sensible reasoning. It is seen vividly in economics (incessant right and left tussle) than in any other subject. Perhaps, this is what adds spices to economics!