The utopian nightmare

Some of today's most powerful and influential people believe that a utopian world is within our grasp. But Foreign Policy contributor William Easterly asks: Is this new fondness for utopia just harmless, inspirational rhetoric, or are utopian ambitions the best way to help the poor?

Utopianism – the political orientation of someone who believes in social perfection – is an idealistic and impractical social theory, says Easterly, but the United Nations adopted it when it created the Millennium Assembly in 2000, and it made its big breakthrough into mainstream discourse in 2005. Moreover:

  • In March, economist and utopia leader Jeffrey Sachs called for a big push of increased foreign aid to meet the Millennium Development Goals to end poverty; the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and British Prime Minister Tony Blair also supported these goals.

  • British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown called for a major increase in aid, or a "Marshall Plan," for Africa.

  • In June, the G-8 leaders agreed on a plan to cancel $40 billion worth of poor-country debt to help facilitate the push.

    Instead of trying to end world poverty, global leaders should simply concentrate on finding interventions that work, says Easterly:

  • Anecdotal and some systematic evidence suggests piecemeal approaches to aid can be successful.

  • Routine childhood immunisation combined with measles vaccination in seven southern African nations cut reported measles cases from 60,000 (1996) to 117 (2000).

  • Another partnership among aid donors contributed to the near eradication of guinea worm in 20 African and Asian countries where it was endemic.

    Poor countries are making progress on their own, says Easterly. There has been steady improvements in health and education in poor countries, market-driven growth in China and India and a movement toward democracy in Latin America and Africa.

    Source: William Easterly, The Utopian Nightmare, Foreign Policy, September/October 2005.

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