Reflections: Political Thoughts on Sustainable Development (A Commentary on Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs’s Coursera course: “The Age of Sustainable Development”)
Having had the opportunity to start to undertake Professor Sachs´s quite informative and extremely educational course on Sustainable Development (SD) –now going into its 6th week— I would like to briefly express some of my concerns and questions regarding SD. Of course, as I read the Discussion Forums, many point to issues regarding the many factors involved in the implementation of the policies which SD allows us to better see and hopefully, to implement, specially in those cases of “poverty trap” in which the conditions are more troubling and recurring. No one wishes to live in inhuman hardship all his/her life; extreme poverty must be eradicated via a concerted effort, and by all ethical means available. In this regard, many of the now famous “TED talks” allow us to try to imagine the hardships and thus feel the importance of connecting lovingly for serious practical improvement: for example, TED talks by: 1) Bono, 2) Jacqueline Novogratz (specially the one regarding prostitution), and my two favorite, 3) Jessica Jackley, founder of KIVA here , and 4) Bunker Roy founder of the Barefoot Movement here . Also, non-academic books such as The International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris, which tells the story of microfinancing success KIVA whose motto is tellingly “loans that change lives”, humble us and transform us in ways we could not even foresee. In brief, many are concerned, and rightly so, with practical issues. Many forum posts in this course come to mind in this regard. Let us just recall a simple one:
“Hello all peers, My name is Abdikadir Daud from Ethiopian Somali region, I’m forwarding my thanks to the course facilitator because I got extended knowledge from this course and I will transfer this skill to my communities .
Abdikadir” ( here )
Abdikadir from Ethiopia, like many of us from around the world, wants to make a difference.
However, my questions proceed from a very different area. They pertain to philosophical questions, that is to say, they deal with the core concepts, formulations and assumptions which must be put forward in the case of any given approach to the complex political and economic reality in which we live. P. Sachs himself does not tire of saying that SD is not merely a PRACTICAL path to CHANGE the world, but also –and more importantly— a THEORETICAL path to UNDERSTAND the world (Lecture 1, Week 1; and beginning of 1st Google Hangout, here ). He even goes so far as to say that it is a NORMATIVE framework which means it involves certain moral presuppositions. These convey the limits, for instance, for all business practices; not everything that is legal should be done. (see, for instance, 2nd Google Hangout: Question No. 4, “On the role of regulation of business.”) Consequently, my main concern regarding the EXCELLENT lectures we have been fortunate to partake in, is to signal –however embryonically– to some of the more puzzling philosophical underpinnings underlying the Sustainable Development Movement. This means that, according to such a critique, it becomes extremely important to undergo a rational critique of the core concepts which guide the interpretative self-understanding of SD. I believe that training in the humanities (specially, political philosophy) alone provides the impulse to see the real importance of such a critique, a political/philosophical critique. I also believe that, given this theoretical inclination, few of our fellow Coursera virtual classmates will proceed to consider the rest of this –much longer than normal– post!
Obviously –though I have lived half of my life in Colombia (which exemplifies many of the problems P. Sachs speaks of, and MORE!) and the other half in Canada (which exemplifies many of the benefits of which P. Sachs speaks of, and MORE!)— we must immediately confess that we do not possess the intellectual capacity nor the global comprehension that somebody like P. Sachs allows us to perceive in each of his engaging video-lectures for the Coursera course. We are but learners, poor in understanding. Be this as it may, nonetheless we will venture to point to what I consider to be some extremely troubling silences and/or omissions which may make us –should make us– question SD forcefully.
Now, although I have already tweeted to #susdev some general short questions, for instance: 1) “ #susdev Suppose we ALL were middle-income citizens of the world. Is that enough? Would our spirit not lose sight of what is MOST important?”, or 2) “ #susdev Isn´t there a rhetorical identification between “extreme poverty” and “poverty” which does not allow for a real critique of SD goals?”, still –as mentioned above– our concern in this post is somewhat more detailed or profound.
We could say that SD, in general —and Clinical Economics, in particular— could be giving us a “differential diagnosis” that may SEEM to point to the root cause of things, variable as they may be, but which may end up REALLY missing the CORE causes of the general “disease” with which some thinkers believe we are currently afflicted as moderns and post-moderns. And by missing some of the CORE causes, it might not be providing the best “medicine(s)” available/desirable. In the philosophical arena, the most radical critics in this regard would be those who follow Heidegger´s powerful critique of technology. Though extremely important, we shall not go into that camp here in detail.
Rather, using P. Sachs own clinical analogy, we can say that it is common nowadays to see traditional Western medicine incapable of treating complex diseases which do not have to deal with physical trauma or life-death situations. Chronic illness, such as different forms of arthritis/fibromyalgia, are a case in point. Of course, P. Sachs´s views seem to us to be much more akin to alternative medicine, in this respect. For one of the basic tenets of alternative medicine is that each patient is UNIQUE. So, each country, according to “Differential Clinical Economics” is likewise, quite UNIQUE. P. Sachs does not tire of saying that a holistic approach to the healing of poverty cannot be founded on a single linear conception of cause. Failing to understand this uniqueness may in fact worsen the situation beyond recovery. In medicine, one need only bring to mind the controversy over the drug Celebrex which not only did not actually cure your arthritis (it simply alleviated the pain), but actually –with certainty– damaged your heart! The history of many other drugs follows this pattern, unfortunately. In political life, the current political turmoil of countries such as our feverish neighbor Venezuela, may be thought to be something akin. As you will see, given the spirit of this post, one truly wonders what P. Sachs´s thoughts are on the current crisis in Venezuela, precisely because its regime claims to hold power for the poor. However that may be, P. Sachs —who also helped Bolivia during its feverish times— summarizes this view well:
“The modern doctor is expected to diagnose the specific causes of a specific patient’s illness and to offer a specific prescription that is accurately honed to that patient’s conditions and needs. The modern economist should do the same in diagnosing the persistence of poverty.” (our emphasis; Chapter 4: “Why Some Countries Developed While Others Stayed Poor, I. The Idea of Clinical Economics”)
Thus, one imagines that if P. Sachs himself were to fall ill, he would most likely search for an alternative medicine center rather than a traditional monolithic hospital built on unquestioned homogeneous forms of understanding, (or better yet, both if possible, for not all traditional doctors are self-enclosed and not all alternative doctors are truly open). The drama of the latest candidate for the Oscar Awards which deals with HIV/Aids –the compelling movie, Dallas Buyers Club—exemplifies all these tensions perfectly. For we, who have been sick, know well that the sick are among the poorest, mind you.
But, as you will see below, our critique could be said to involve a much more intense and alternative diagnosis than the one which P. Sachs offers. It would be an alternative to the alternative; but much more troubling. It would be an alternative that would show –if someday made fully explicit– that the alternative provided by SD is, in the end, really, really, not so much of an alternative except in the imagination, albeit with some crucial exceptions, among them, that of the eradication of extreme poverty itself. The idealistic overtones of SD would be seen thus to be constantly destabilized by the realistic peculiarities of localities, by a kind of non-Machiavellian political realism (i.e., much closer to Thucydides´s) and by certain “intractables” of human nature. Or to be less severe and less cranky (!) —for we know, as its students, that SD has partially succeeded IN REALITY through exciting models such as those of the Millennium Villages– one could say that the goals of SD, for instance, the Eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG´S), must be corrected with recourse to another tradition which not only sets the hierarchy of these goals aright, but also may add some which may have been altogether forgotten in SD differential diagnosis, however complete it claims to be. ( here )