Although I am a year behind here, I have just started reading Jeffrey Sachs’s The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, paperback just released by Penguin (with a foreword by Bono!). I’ll avoid the urge to comment on everything that strikes me this or that way in the book–and I most certainly am not going to try to go head to head with Sachs on economic matters. But, being a student of language, I would like to point out a subtlety some might consider benign, but I suspect is of relevance. It exists in the following passage from the Preface to the Paperback Edition:
In August 2005, my wife and I returned to the villages of Nthandire and Chilota in Malawi that we had visited in early 2002. Once again these villages were in the throes of drought and extreme hunger…And alas, the world community was once again passing up the chance to help Malawi’s millions of smallholder farmers to raise their farm productivity and thereby escape from the seemingly endless cycles of famine. An emergency global appeal to help Malawi’s farmers gain desperately needed inputs of improved seed varieties and soil nutrient replenishment had gone largely unanswered.
A thousand miles north of Malawi, however, in western Kenya, a similar village was provingwhat could be done when the human heart and head act in unison to address the crying needs of such communities. The village of Sauri, Kenya, that I introduce in Chapter 12, celebrated its first harvest as a “Millennium Village.” Private philanthropists had given enough aid to enable Sauri to make the key investments idetified by the UN Millennium Project. These investments, described in this book, have empowered Sauri to begin the escape from poverty.
Don’t think I am splitting hairs, but I think it is significant that Sachs blames “the world community” for ceasing to act when Malawi needed help and credits “private philanthropists” for saving the Kenyan village. This subtle difference in terminology betrays, I suspect, a mindset that does not realize the nebulous nature of the term “world community”. Who, exactly, are the “world community” and what help can they lend a very specifically defined group in need? On the other hand, I am sure Sachs could tell us exactly who these “private philanthropists” were who invested in the Kenya village: they are, no doubt, specific persons of means with the will to help those in need.
The point is this: when we think in the general terms of “world community,” “governments,” “society,” or “nations of the world” as the sources of help, aid, problem-solving, charity, etc., we are really making a statement so general as to be almost meaningless. Sending an appeal to everyone–the “world community”–is akin to sending an appeal to no one. It should be no surprise, then, when no one responds. On the other hand, appeals to specific, individual human persons, and those most immediate institutions that arise naturally from their interactions–families, faith communities, neighborhoods, businesses–these appeals are much more likely to yield results because the person appealing for help is appealing to a someone, recognizing their “someone-ness.” Ask “him” for he is a “him”; ask “her” for she is a “her.” Address “them” for they are, in fact, a “them.” But when we address “society,” who are we really addressing?