Show Me: Hating on Sachs

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Homeboy Jeffrey Sachs’s love-fest, more commonly referred to as the Show Me: Poverty Action Tour, continued last night in Lerner Cinema, striking a far less harmonious chord than the previous night’s concert.  While Monday’s kick-off event offered a serenade by none other than the Grammy award winning singer-songwriter John Legend who sang “Show Me,” a piece written in response to his
qualms about witnessing poverty in Tanzanian villages, Tuesday’s event entitled New Directions: Critical Interpretations of Sustainable Development left the music behind in order to pack a more somber and academic punch.  

Indeed, the event served as a forum for an all-star cast of professors and activists to suggest alternatives and criticisms to Sachs’s approach to sustainable development.  While the previous night’s festivities were merely an homage to Sachs’s work in the field of economic development, Tuesday’s event offered an opportunity to rethink the current strategies of sustainable development and offer serious criticism of the anti-poverty movement (Sachs is arguably the most dominant voice in this field).

Critical Interpretations of Sustainable Development brought together the likes of former Irish President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson (now the Executive Director of the Ethical Globalization Initiative, SIPA development economics professor Sanjay Reddy (a former student of Jeff Sachs), Saskia Sassen a Columbia sociology professor and member of the Committee on Global Thought, and David Harvey an urban studies theorist and professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, to approach the study of sustainable development from a few different areas of expertise, including  human rights, anthropology, economics, and sociology.

Regal in both appearance and diction, Robinson began the event by recalling her experiences at the recent Davos World Economic Forum.  She recounted her experience of seeing a sign that read “No sustainable development without human rights.”  She then described the importance of water as a natural resource that in years to come will determine many people’s economic fate.  Robinson wondered whether wars would be waged over water in the future and questioned whether one can truly consider water a human right.  She argued that only South Africa has taken the lead in considering access to potable water for citizens a necessary human right.  

Through monitoring mechanisms and peer review programs, Robinson suggested that African nations would be able have checks on each other and better offer a more robust human-rights based approach to the eradication of poverty.  “We need to hold those in power to accountability,” Robinson suggested.  The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights continued by discussing what she understands the eradication of poverty to be.  She put it very simply by saying that the eradication of poverty is merely, “access to water and freedom from violence.”  Robinson suggested that without a special attention to human rights by governments when conducting anti-poverty campaigns, sustainable development projects are merely an “empty promise to 800 million people.”  

Next up: economics professor Sanjay Reddy’s soft-spoken yet harsh critique of the practicality of Sachs’s approach to poverty reduction.  Reddy (a student of Sachs’s at Harvard) grilled Sachs about his philanthropy-based view of poverty reduction that’s outlined in the Millennium Development Goals.  According to Reddy, this approach is a far cry from one based on global justice and the Millennium Development Goals need to be restructured.  Citing the Millennium Project as a philanthropic effort dominated by the Washington consensus, he described the project as merely being a Northern endeavor that focuses on the development of the South according to Northern standards.  Reddy noted, “The ideas is to encourage countries to pursue their own development plans.” 

While Reddy and Robinson defended the need for a project of sustainable development in order to combat poverty worldwide and merely questioned the assumptions behind the technical aspects of that project, professors Sassen and Harvey approached the issue of poverty from a different angle – by critiquing some of the larger philosophical assumptions behind capitalism, a system that they both suggested engenders poverty.  Sassen suggested, “Our economic system produces poverty as part of how it functions.  The more you allow that deep flaw in the system, the more the challenge builds.”  Moreover, the sociology professor suggested that in modern industrialized and rich countries, enabling the poor is simply becoming a fashion and “there is something corrupt in saying that we can give them [the poor] crumbs.”  Sassen asked students about the effectiveness in promoting awareness about poverty and environmental destruction by asking, “How do we make the current system legible, can the brutality of a system engender change?”  Sassen wondered if we would ever arrive at conditions that are bigger than our difference, forcing us to act decisively.  She left the stage by asking, “Does the world have to be that grim?”

Finally, David Harvey closed the evening’s discussion by passionately echoing the sentiments of professor Sassen, noting that the fundamental issue to consider is not poverty itself but capitalism.  He argued throughout his speech that capitalists feed off one another and build off of the system, therefore compounded poverty is a natural consequence of this economic system.  The urban studies theorist opened by discussing income disparities in the United States, noting that bonuses on Wall Street in 2007 totaled over 32 billion dollars, while there are over 2 million Americans that will lose their homes due to foreclosures caused by the errors of these traders, many of them African Americans and single women in impoverished parts of cities.  Speaking of what he termed a “political economy of dispossession,” Harvey shouted, “I think it is obscene!”  He even drew a large applause from the crowd when he suggested that these displacements are precisely what is happening in Manhattanville.

Q and A was rather tame at the conference, as organizers struggled to get questions to the panelists and both Robinson and Sassen opted out of the question period as the night wore on.  In the end, Critical Interpretations of Sustainable Development offered a very unique look at the assumptions behind the poverty action project.  Indeed, at a university very committed to the Millennium Development Goals, it was refreshing to see an evening of panelists that were willing to offer heavy criticism of Professor Sachs’s project.  Reddy noted at the conclusion of Q and A that this was one of the rare occasions on Columbia’s campus that he was aware of critical debate occurring on the implementation of poverty eradication goals that are frequently touted without contention.  The evening provided one more opportunity for CU students to inform themselves about the issues that face the world today, ultimately supporting Professor Reddy’s contention that “Informed politics is what matters today.”


Special thanks to Daniel Yeow for pictures.

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  1. Breaking news!

    Local Soweto radio is reporting that the great Nelson Mandela has died in a car crash. This is a dark day for Africa. He perished a free man after living as a prisoner for so many years--like Jesus, suffering so that others could be released from their bondage. Nelson Mandela was a very great man who showed Africa and the world equality and stopped racism for 46 years.

    Godspeed, Mandela! You liberated us!

  2. wtf  

    the guy who took pictures probably snapped over a 100 during the course of the event. this didn't really make sense considering there was pretty much no visual action on stage.

    it was annoying and you could see the panelists directly looking at him many times. they clearly did not appreciate the excess of flashes which were distracting to both the audience and the speakers.

    also on an unrelated note. all of the speakers had water bottles and plastic cups... hypocritical?

    • Water bottles and  

      plastic cups are pretty standard fare at this type of event; they were not brought by the speakers... I thought this was a good event, even though Mary Robinson spoke for way too long considering there were three other panelists waiting to talk. The last two didn't say anything that new or interesting, but Reddy gave a legitimate pragmatic criticism of Sachs. He is right--there should be more of a vetting of Sachs' SDev in what is supposedly a critical academic environment. I'd love to see an event featuring a debate between him or someone like him and Sachs.

    • the observer  

      I don't believe that on-stage action is a requisite condition for photos to be taken for news purposes.

      In any case, if the speakers don't like the media, that's their problem. As for the audience... they can always leave.

  3. Is It Only Me...  

    Or does this "Show Me: ..." thing remind you of Family Feud?

    Name a reason why no one will read this whole post...

    "It's too long!"

    Show me... it's too fucking long!

  4. Ehh  

    stop with this wall street bashing; there are other professions equally lucrative, and Wall Street pay packages are skewed towards bonuses over base salaries, making them more accountable for their work than other businesses. Wall Street-ers aren't impoverishing nations, nor are they exploiting people for their labor, nor are they violating human rights.

    Also, the poverty definition put forth by the Irish Premier doesn't seem all that comprehensive; poverty in India isn't best described by violence or water.

  5. jpm  

    Thanks for this recap. I agree that it's refreshing to see the Millennium Development Goals under some criticism. I'm kind of pissed that I missed hearing Reddy and Sassen speak on this--I admit I ignored this entire series of events because of my general reluctance to join in the self-congratulatory Sachs festivities. That man annoys me.

  6. Sow this

    I think you mean Sub-Saharan Africa, or Black Africa. And it is always problematic when one speaks of continents as one would of sentient beings.

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