Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Poverty: What are the Causes?

Dear Colleagues

I attended an event at Columbia University yesterday evening. The occasion was the launching of Consilience, a new journal of Sustainable Development with presentations by Dr. Jeffrey D. Sachs and Dr. Joshua Graff Zivin.

Consilience ... which means "the joining together of knowledge and information across disciplines to create a unified framework of understanding" is a very appropriate name for a journal that is going to address issues of sustainable development.

I did not have high hopes for the evening. I remember an event at my own University some 45 years ago when I attended an alumni affair and heard the managing director of a well known British company ask that the academic community not to waste money researching things that the corporate community had been doing for years. Now, many years later I feel the same way about academic research into poverty ... yes, there is a need to understand poverty, but the knowledge about poverty is to be found within the community of perhaps 2 billion people who are in it (or is it 1 billion or is it 4 billion) and not much in the writings of academic researchers whose papers are filed in stacks in academic ivory towers. So I did not have high hopes!

In fact, I came away with considerable optimism. The group of students who were largely responsible for the establishment of the new journal seemed to represent a new wave of students who understood better than most that the possibilities of sustainable development were way better than performance under the present paradigm for relief and development ... and Dr. Sachs talked about the need for knowledge in the context of radical reform (though he did not use such words) of the way in which the world's institutions worked. I have often characterised Dr. Sachs as being too comfortable with the status quo, and merely arguing for more funding for what I argue is a "failed" status quo ... but this is not what I heard last night. Rather I heard Dr. Sachs arguing for knowledge that would facilitate the changes that are both possible and needed ... and arguing for inclusion of knowledge from all areas of science and society. I heard about the possibilities of new ways to do good things ... I heard a positive message.

All of this was encouraging. There was not much of accounting ... but there never is. So that was not a particular disappointment. There was not too much about a people perspective, and the need for understanding poverty from the perspective of people who are experiencing poverty, and what the priorities might be from their viewpoint. But these perspectives are rarely articulated in academic circles ... however Dr. Sachs acknowledged in response to a question from the audience that issues of monetary policy (citing the case of Bolivia) are much easier to resolve than deeply entrenched issues of poverty ... and that poverty is, in fact, one of the most complex inter-disciplinery problems there is.

The evening ended too soon ... the journal has been launched ... maybe there will be not only a journal called Consilience, but wow ... also the practice of consilience. Now that would be progress!

Peter Burgess

PS The Consilience website is: http://www.consiliencejournal.org

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