not in our time: burn the magic blankets and smash the band wagons

To posit that poverty, even just simply extreme poverty, will end or has the possibility to end in our time borders on naïveté. There are many within the development sphere that would jump on Jeffery Sachs’ bandwagon only to find that there are no bands scheduled to play. Like a marching band without instruments, Sachs’ claims seek to present structural solutions to problems without addressing structural root causes. One cannot expect too much from those who want to present good ideas, but do not challenge the status quo or the pockets of power that drive the “development” agendas. If there is to be real social change that benefits people in development then power structures must be addressed. Philip McMichael focuses on the role of power within the development field. Making sure to note the master and subject relationship between those of the ‘modern’ world and those who have not grown in the same vein as that power strapped modernity. A key aspect forgotten in many development discussions is history, including the very history of development. Many enter a community or country and attempt to present a diagnosis before even researching how and why the country, deemed ‘developing,’ has arrived at the poor conditions viewed as the worst possible indicators for ‘development.’


We are living in a society that is wrestling with the idea that everything once held in high regard has actually been a set of extremely violent and detrimental practices to both our fellow human beings and our earthly habitat. As a result we talk of post-development, post-modernity, post-materialism, alternatives to globalization, and anything that rejects actions of the past. Calls like these are nothing new and have been expressed and published for the past 30 odd years by various experts and activists. It seems we are only now beginning to collectively grasp the importance of these post-world analyses. However from all these post-analyses it is easy to arrive at scathing conclusions of past failures. What is not as easy is to move forward from the wrongs of the past into the present and future with a firm understanding of what needs to change. Many within the development field fall victim to this analysis leaving the real issues unaddressed and the violent structure intact.
Addressing Inadequacies Effectively

Jeffery Sachs stepped to the limelight of the development world with his once seemingly far-reaching and radical assertions that we, the wealthy world, could easily do so much more to help those in grave situations. He was undoubtedly correct, but few took the time to really look at how he was saying (or not saying) we should implement this help. In Chapter One of his book, The End of Poverty, Jeffery Sachs writes,

Today we can evoke the same logic [the ability of advances in technology to underpin continued economic growth] to declare that extreme poverty can be ended not in the time of our grandchildren, but in our time. The wealth of the rich world, the power of today’s vast storehouse of knowledge, and the declining fraction of the world that needs help to escape from poverty all make the end of poverty a realistic possibility by the end of 2025. (3)

Here Sachs’ greatest mistake is laid bare. He does well to note that the wealth of today’s rich world is needed to make a difference in reversing the trends of poverty. However, he nearly exclusively focuses on the wealth of today’s rich world and not on the innovation and ability of those being ‘developed’ to know best about their situation. He misses the greatest uplifting accomplishment of human nature; empowerment. Yes, the ‘developed’ and Western world has harmed much of the ‘developing’ world in its pursuit of power and wealth. However, the key is not then to dictate the uses of that stolen wealth, but to redistribute it to those who are effectively addressing the issues that they face.

Sachs is an economist and not a historian. He nearly completely misses the make and break issue of development – colonialism and its effects. His structured solutions that tote the nation-state do not take into account a colonial past or its present implications that hold back development. Sachs as an economist is also from the “centralized” economics camp. He studied under shock therapy and structural adjustment programs (SAPs) for failing economies and seems to have never left behind the idea that people in poverty cannot help themselves and require experts or professionals to get them out.

Contradictions are a constant in Sachs’ work, the biggest one being his call for decentralization (278). His new big plan is the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), which looks like a very promising model except for the fact that it focuses on getting experts into villages to ‘develop’ and modernize them as opposed to allowing the village community to develop itself with support from the West. He calls for decentralization, but constantly follows the regular flows of development experts in advancing the role of the state in controlling development, as opposed to the people. The MVP has a great potential to be a working model for decentralized development spurred by individual communities in autonomous villages working for sustainable living, but those at the village level must then be empowered as such.

Relying on the market to help people is also a great failure of many current development economists, especially Sachs. If the market worked as it was supposed to, then wealth would redistribute itself through the structure to those without. This does not happen, there are cracks between the fingers of the invisible hand, and no markets are truly ‘free.’ Again Sachs fails to address power structures that drive markets and economies. The modernist approach with an individual at the helm driving his or her own advancement in society completely destroys the idea that people have a linked and interdependent existence. While Sachs critiques the magic bullet approach, he instead presents a magic blanket to cover the world of development issues without regard to power structures, colonial histories, or failures of the market (309). Sachs comes from the ‘development as modernization’ approach and he cannot seem to kick the habit.

Death by Consumption

Anyone with a basic understanding of the world can easily tell you that the way we currently live is extremely unsustainable and violent if the human race and world as we know it are to continue with future generations. Our practices destroy environments, force the extinction of animal species, destroy the lifestyles of those without, and kill people. We are essentially killing ourselves with the power hungry system we have established across the globe. When it was a wealthy minority that propagated the globalized stratification that we now see, it has become a collective “we” with a responsibility to change. In Chapter One of his book, Development and Social Change, Philip McMichael writes:

We are at a critical threshold: Whether consumer-based development remains a minority activity or becomes a majority activity among the earth’s inhabitants, either way is unacceptable for social (divided planet) or environmental (unsustainable planet) reasons or both, Development as we know it is in question. (1)

McMichael’s statement that, “We are at a critical threshold,” is not a new one. This sentiment has been echoed with the same calls for action for the past 30 years as many watched the earth deteriorate and society fracture across lines of income.

To overcome this threshold McMichael goes into the racist policies of colonization and talks about the benefits of decolonization in relation to development. The most important idea to cover here is the notion of modernity and the rise of neo-colonial practices funded by foreign aid. Are developing peoples modern? Can they be modern? How can those developing be considered modern if they never had a hand in developing what it now means to be modern? This is a very post-modern perspective, but I think a very valid one. If ‘developing’ societies want to effectively develop into sustainable communities that account for both the needs of people and their environment then they will need to reject every notion of being modern. Just because a Rwandan can use a computer doesn’t mean that s/he is modern mostly because s/he is not accepted as such in the global system. ‘Developing’ countries and communities need to also look at the implications of becoming modern: environmental degradation, liberalized and open economy that does not benefit everyone, exploitation of labor, the desire for things un-needed, and the fracturing of society in relation to wants, gender, and class.

The global world has come to commodify everything, including your much needed breakfast in the morning, possibly very soon your life could be legally bought and sold on the market. If everyone became modern and consumed at the rate that the wealthy do now – we will join the ranks of species made extinct by the human race. Those who have the highest power and wealth in society need to recognize and reduce their desire, while those without power and wealth need their basic needs provided.

McMichael’s writings focus on the impact of development projects and policies on people, and as such also the habitats of those people. Where most developers look beyond people straight to the nation-state and the increases in GDP, McMichael offers real life examples of development at work and models for sustainable development. McMichael doesn’t attempt to present any grand plans or solutions but instead focuses on case studies of groups and communities resisting global development and attempting to spur their own development (231).

Dichotomy: Will Modernity or Tradition Save the Day?

The potential solutions are many and the ideas just keep coming, but what really works and what is just a stack of papers, a nicely written book, or a pile of garbage. If we focus solely on the ideologies of Sachs and McMichael, I think it is possible to marry the two ideas for solutions to creating models for sustainable development and moving towards a more equal and mutually beneficial society.

Sachs will have to make some concessions if the marriage is to last beyond the honeymoon however. When Sachs calls for decentralization (278), he has to really mean it. His MVP model needs to embody this idea that small-scale groupings of people can create their own solutions for development. As McMichael writes, models of self-organizing development need to be adopted as opposed to the dominant centralizing version (239). In the same vein of decentralizing needs to be the idea of localization. McMichael writes of Wolfgang Sachs’ idea of ‘cosmopolitian localism’ where diversity is embraced at the local levels. A great example of ‘cosmopolitian activism’ is the advent of cooperatives that infuse democratic values and respect for local ecology.

In a case study in Ghana, McMichael outlines this idea better (248). Local farmers switched from growing a national crop of cassava to growing corn for the local markets. This was in a sense a slight rejection of the state economy and global economy to ensure a sustainable local community. The goal of many developing countries related to the environment is to create alternatives to the capital and energy intensive agro-industry and sustain local ecologies by building alternative models to top-down bureaucratic systems (249).


The solution will not be a large-scale plan that is facilitated by the West or modeled by modern advances. The solution will be in decentralized, small-scale, local villages and communities working collectively together to preserve their ecological habitats and meet everyone’s basic needs. The state will become irrelevant, the global economy will be allowed to collapse, and people will seek to be closer to one another in their shared natural commons.

Works Cited:
McMichael, Philip
2004 Development and Social Change. Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press.

Sachs, Jeffery
2005 The End of Poverty. New York: Penguin Press.


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