LectureHop: Sach-ed Again

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Mark Hay, Bwog’s Master of the Millennium Village, makes a man want to speak Spanish.

j-sachsNo Columbia celebrity packs a room quite like Jeffrey Sachs. Invited by the young student group Delta GDP to speak on his already notorious views on development programs in impoverished nations, this brief and cursory event filled a rather uncomfortable Fayerweather classroom well beyond capacity. Streams of equal exchange, fairly traded, organically grown dark chocolate flowed in abundance through the audience, accompanied by advertising placards for reverse trick-or-treating with large and inspiring pictures of smiling African children. So cute. And in this utopian lull, the crowd bustled with excited commentary on the veritable demigod soon to grace us with his presence

Interestingly, this event was originally conceptualized as a potential debate between Sachs and arch-nemesis William Easterly of NYU. Sachs, however, shot down this idea, claiming that he does not do debates, at least not in person – he’s just not that confrontational. So William Easterly will appear alone Friday, same time, same place, exact opposite message (Bwog can only image in this backwards world what the audience and amenities will be like). With Easterly out of the picture, though, Sachs found the time and the freedom to paint his rosy picture of development – such earnest hope and trust in the goodwill of man and his pocketbook, it’s like watching an elevated Sally Struthers commercial.

Sachs began with a brief biological sketch of the birth and growth of his ideas starting with a trip in the mid-1990s to Zambia where he was first confronted with the truth of the AIDS epidemic. He thereafter set out to discover what could be done to alleviate the situation only to realize that any expert anywhere could name several simple, almost commonsense, solutions to the problems of infectious diseases, malnourishment, and childbirth and infant morality. It was Sachs’ job, then, to put a price tag on these measures.

What Sachs realized in the realm of health then, and has since realized in infrastructure, agriculture, and numerous other realms, is this: given the levels of technology and absolute wealth in the world, alleviating poverty (not defined by Sachs in dollar terms, but rather in terms of access to the necessities of life – clean water, healthcare, food) is an extremely cheap proposition. And he proposes to kick off an ascent from poverty towards growth by modest redistributions of wealth from the incredibly rich world to the incredibly poor world. Sachs claims that the transfer would be so small – on the order of 0.1 percent of the developed world’s annual GDP – that one would hardly notice its loss in America or Britain, but its benefits to the poor would be immeasurable. His quest, then, working on behalf of the UN on the Millennium Development Goals for the past nine years, has been to increase global contributions from 0.01 percent of GDP to 0.1 percent.

Unfortunately, Sachs claims, they have thus far only approached somewhere near 0.03 percent. Global leaders, he claims, often view his and the UN’s goals as nothing more than a photo-op, soon to be forgotten. However, despite negligence by former President Bush (Sachs notes that Bush only mentioned the MDGs once in eight years – “September 14, 2005, at 10:15 AM, precisely”), Sachs notes the resilience of the MDGs in various global summits and, promisingly, in the rhetoric of the Obama administration. Sachs, then, sees 2010 (ten years in to the MDGs timeframe with five years remaining) as the year to mobilize the population and pressure global governments into acknowledging the moral imperative and ethical obligation not just to help the poor, but also to fulfill previous promises of funding for such development projects. And he wants you to join his army to help make 2010 the year of shaming politicians and destroying poverty.

With a gentle nod to the absent Easterly, Sachs acknowledged the popular dissent among economists to his redistributive methods – they do not honor the sanctity of the market as a tool for alleviating poverty. Sachs, though, holds that if someone is clever enough to develop the world totally with markets, well, that’s great. But for now the world needs international welfare, which should be viewed not as cheating, but as no different than the programs we enact within nations to keep our poor from dying on the streets (well, at least to keep they from dying on the streets in droves). Some commodities can become accessible and beneficial via markets, Sachs argues (cell phones), but others (healthcare) need to be given to the entire population and a gradual market dispersion that often never fully trickles down will not achieve that necessity.

True, Sachs admitted during the question and answer period, his ideas face a spate of challenges: corrupt governments, sustainable development goals, restricting birth rates and keeping growth in harmony with environmental constraints, and other complications ad infinitum. But Sachs urges all to plunge onwards with him, to fight each battle with great resolve as they arise, to never waver, and, above all, starting right now, to do the right thing.

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  1. Dave  

    Jeff Sachs makes my erection sustainable.

  2. Sarah

    To clarify one thing that hopefully Prof. Easterly will point out: It's not that Easterly & co. believe every good and service ought to be delivered by markets, as it seems Prof. Sachs implies. It's rather that current aid approaches should be more market-oriented in order to be more effective. For example, aid agencies are almost solely accountable to their donors. There is a lack of a feedback mechanism from the people who need aid to aid agencies, a mechanism inherent in markets and democracies, which inhibits the innovation and progress of aid agencies. It's not that Easterly is against aid in all forms. The title of Easterly's blog says it all - Aid Watch: just asking that aid benefit the poor.

    Details on the Easterly event below:

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