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Jeffrey Sachs: Population Controller?

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. He reiterated the main points on population in an op-ed for CNN last October, to greet the globe’s seven-billionth inhabitant. “How can we enjoy sustainable development on a very crowded planet?” Asks Sachs. Two ways: the first requires a change of technologies and more global cooperation, he writes. The second is the stabilization of the global population. Developed world birth rates are down, he says, “The reduction of fertility rates should be encouraged in the poorer countries as well. Rapid and wholly voluntary reductions of fertility have been and can be achieved in poor countries.”

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 smart people have been working for decades to delink poverty from population. At the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development world leaders pressed by women’s groups agreed. As Radhika Balakrishnan, feminist economist, director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers puts it, “how population behaves is more important than how it grows.”

Given global distribution and consumption patterns, one of Jeffrey Sachs’s children in the United States, for example, probably destroys more of the planet’s resources in a day than your average small African village.

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?

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