Article Summary: “Tropical Underdevelopment” by Jeffrey Sachs

Title: Tropical Underdevelopment
Author: Jeffrey Sachs
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 2.5 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system

Topic of Book

Sachs argues that the poverty of tropical nations is largely caused by geography.

Key Take-aways

  • Geography plays a critical role in the wealth of a society.
  • Nations in tropical latitudes are particularly disadvantaged by geography.

Important Quotes from Article

Perhaps the strongest empirical relationship in wealth and poverty of nations is the one between ecological zones and per capita income. Economies in tropical ecozones are nearly everywhere poor, while those in temperate ecozones are generally rich.

I would like to propose five hypotheses regarding tropical underdevelopment:

  1. Technologies in critical areas – especially health and agriculture, but also construction, energy use and some manufacturing processes – are ecologically specific. Such technologies do not easily diffuse across ecological zones.
  2. By the start of the era of modern economic growth, if not much earlier, temperate-zone technologies were more productive than tropical-zone technologies in crucial areas of health, agriculture and energy utilization, not to mention military technology.
  3. Temperate-zone innovation has been strongly favored by larger and richer populations… probably the main amplifier of the gap between temperate and tropical zones in the past two hundred years;
  4. Societal dynamics – especially the processes of urbanization and demographic transition (lower birth and death rates) – are further amplifies of the development process.
  5. Geopolitical factors – such as temperate-zone imperial domination of the tropical regions on the basis of superior military technology, and rich-country of the institutions of globalization – are further amplifiers, but their role is often exaggerated.

Climate type is a far better predictor of geography than latitude.

For the major staple crops – rice, maize and wheat – productivity appears to be considerably higher in the temperate zones than in tropical zones. As a general rule, temperate zone economies are food exporters, while tropical zone economies are food importers.

Lower levels of food productivity caused by:

  1. Fragility of tropical soil.
  2. High prevalence of crop pests and parasites, due to lack of freezing winter month to kill them.
  3. Crops in warm climates have higher rates of plant respiration, and warm nights in particular impose a high cost on net photosynthesis.
  4. Arid tropical regions are subject to severe drought, while humid tropics get excessive rainfall, which leads to water-logging, leaching and difficulty in storing grains.

Tropical regions have much higher disease rates. Infectious diseases in temperate zones declined markedly in Europe in 19th Century due to improved nutrition, public sanitation, immunization and behavior modification. Diseases did not decline in tropical zones.

At least 80% of coal reserves are in temperate countries.

82.5 percent of oil and gas reserves are in non-tropical countries.

East Asian success stories were due to improved public health and shift of economy from tropical agriculture to export-oriented manufacturing.

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