The Gandhi of our Times

Japhy Wilson, National Strategic Centre for the Right to Territory (CENEDET), Quito, Ecuador

 

In September of this year the United Nations will endorse the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as the framework for international development policy for the next 15 years. The influential development economist Jeffrey Sachs has recently published his manifesto for the SDGs, entitled The Age of Sustainable Development (Columbia University Press, 2015). The book constitutes a key move in Sachs’s endless campaign to consolidate his position as the undisputed guru of international development.

 

When Sachs launched the book at the United Nations headquarters in New York in May 2015, he was introduced as “the Gandhi of our times”. Nobody laughed. And on reflection the epithet was disconcertingly accurate. We really do live in times in which Jeffrey Sachs, notorious progenitor of neoliberal “shock therapy,” responsible for the impoverishment and dispossession of millions across Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the ex-Soviet Union, is held up as one of the world’s greatest moral authorities and most outspoken defenders of the poor and voiceless (Wilson 2014).

 

The next issue of Human Geography (volume 8 number 2) will include my extended review of Sachs’s new book. This heavily edited version of that review passes quickly over the content of the book to confront Sachs’s agenda for sustainable development with its concrete implementation in his Millennium Villages Project (MVP).

 

The book sets out an agenda for sustainable development as a “holistic” synthesis of economic, social and ecological dimensions, founded on “a shared global ethic” (p. 508). Sachs has put this agenda to the test in the MVP, which is being implemented in villages across sub-Saharan Africa, and is financed by a “philanthrocapitalist” network of billionaires and multinational corporations. Sachs claims that the success of the MVP “encourages us to envision the end of extreme poverty in this generation” (p. 180). My own research, however, has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of this development strategy and the hollowness of the “shared global ethic” on which it is premised.

 

In 2014 I visited the Millennium Village of Bonsaaso, in central Ghana. Sachs had assumed that Bonsaaso was a generic “African village” of peasants dwelling in isolation from the global economy. It is actually located in the middle of a gold mining region, and since the launch of the MVP in 2006 it has been overwhelmed by a global gold rush caused by an unprecedented boom in the international price of gold. Foreign miners bribe local chiefs to access gold-rich land. They then tear up the land with excavators, destroying farms and cocoa plantations, extracting the gold with mercury, and leaving a barren landscape that cannot be farmed again (Wilson 2015).

 

Deforestation has accelerated, roads have been destroyed by heavy mining equipment, and the major rivers in Bonsaaso are now so polluted that people cannot even wash their clothes in them. Miners have died in pit collapses, and children have drowned after falling into the stagnant waters of abandoned mining pits, which have become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, resulting in an increase of malaria.Police, military, and private security forces have violently expelled local people from the richest sites. Meanwhile small farmers dispossessed of their land have quickly spent their meagre compensation, and are migrating to the cities, or looking for day labour in the mines.

 

In early 2012, Jeffrey Sachs dispatched at least three separate research missions to Bonsaaso to investigate the situation. The resulting internal reports are unanimous in their assessment of the severity of the crisis and its implications for the MVP (Wilson 2015). Yet in July 2012, Sachs posted a glowing report on Bonsaaso on the MVP website, which neglected to mention the presence of mining in the region, while celebrating the success of the MVP in increasing crop yields, improving education facilities, and reducing malaria and malnutrition (Sachs 2012).

 

This report was inconsistent with the data contained in the MVP’s internal reports. According to this data, between 2006 and 2011 the percentage of households in Bonsaaso living in extreme poverty increased from 69.4 percent to 70.1 percent; net primary school attendance decreased from 81.1 percent to 72.9 percent; mortality rates in children under 5 increased from 50 to 60 per 1,000 births; and malaria prevalence increased from 63.4 percent to 71.8 percent (Wilson 2015).

 

Sachs was not merely attempting to protect the reputation of a well-intentioned project destroyed by events beyond his control. On the contrary, the MVP collaborates closely with big players in the global gold industry. The Brazilian mining corporation Vale is financing Millennium Villages in Zambia and Mozambique. And the South African gold mining corporation AngloGold is constructing Millennium Villages at its mines in Guinea and Tanzania. Both Vale and AngloGold Ashanti are recent recipients of the annual Public Eye award for the corporation with “the most contempt for the environment and human rights” (quoted in Wilson 2015: 19).

 

The billionaire financial speculator George Soros has invested at least US$77 million in the MVP. This is small change, however, compared to the US$663 million that Soros invested in gold and gold-based derivatives in 2009 alone. This investment drove up the gold price, and thus helped to drive the gold rush in Bonsaaso. Soros’s investment activities have therefore unleashed the forces that are laying waste to his own philanthropic project, while the gold ripped out of Bonsaaso has underpinned the derivatives on which he has made huge profits (Wilson 2015).

 

Bonsaaso constitutes a stark example of precisely the kind of economic, social and ecological catastrophe that The Age of Sustainable Development is supposed to address. What better opportunity to confront the concrete challenges of sustainable development? Yet Sachs has chosen to conceal the crisis in Bonsaaso, and to ignore the mockery that it makes of his development strategy and his “shared global ethic.” Instead, he praises the success of the MVP, claiming that “It is very exciting to see this kind of progress on the ground” (p. 180). And the world applauds… Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I give you “the Gandhi of our times.”

 

References

Sachs, J. (2012) How the Daily Mail Twisted the Facts to Fight Help for the Poor. Millennium Villages. Accessible at: http://millenniumvillages.org/field-notes/how-the-daily-mail-twisted-the-facts-to-fight-help-for-the-poor. (Accessed 29 May 2015)

Sachs, J. (2015) The Age of Sustainable Development. New York: Colombia University Press

Wilson, J. (2014) Jeffrey Sachs: The Strange Case of Dr Shock and Mr Aid. London: Verso

Wilson, J.  (2015) The Village that Turned to Gold: A Parable of Philanthrocapitalism. Development and Change (Available on Early View).

 

 

 

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