Peter Sterne saw Jeff Sachs IN REAL LIFE! His report from the World Leaders Forum follows.

Yesterday evening, Jeffrey Sachs hosted a panel discussion with an assortment of East African leaders. Despite not knowing exactly who would be on the panel, over 400 undergraduates, grad students, and honored guests crowded into the Low Library Rotunda to hear about the “Challenges of the Drylands.”

“The toughest development challenge on the planet, ” he began,  “are the extremely arid regions,” such as the drylands centered northeastern Kenya and the border with Somalia. This is an area where people herd cattle instead of growing crops and there are more problems than in “the Book of Job, with drought, flood, drought, then epidemic,” not to mention armed conflict. Thankfully, the Earth Institute has started to promote the development of drylands regions in Eastern Africa through the Drylands Initiative which already includes Uganda, Dijibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan, and will include Eritrea.

After hearing from other prominent organizers in the movement, it was finally time for the African leaders to give their perspectives. The first to speak was the Director of the Drylands Initiative in Karamoja, a region in northern Uganda. The Karamojong people of Karamoja, she explained, spend their time traveling and “looking for water and pasture for their cattle.” Since water is so scarce, they can never afford to settle down in one place, and as a result, “it’s hard to have schools and other things.” The water scarcity also leads to ethnic conflict and cattle-stealing, and while the latter may evoke idyllic notions of a simpler time, the reality is the Karamojong have automatic machine guns and are dying of starvation, dehydration, and war because the Ugandan government has ignored their needs while focusing on “the rest of the country, which is rich in culture and rainfall, and sedentary.” With the assistance of the Drylands Initiative, the Ugandan government is now trying to bring water sources to the people so they can settle in villages, trade in their weapons, and develop their society.

The next leader to speak was Roble Ohaye, Ambassador to the UN for the Republic of Dijibouti. Perhaps overestimating the geographical knowledge of the average Columbian, he assumed that we knew Dijibouti’s neighbors, “Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia…and our fourth neighbor, the Red Sea, by far the most peaceful.” He explained how Dijibouti may run out of freshwater within twenty years, and that there is no rainy season. In spite of the difficulties, he clearly had pride in his country and its social-welfare policies. “Dijibouti,” he volunteered, “is the world’s least-known welfare state.” Education is free, and “Dijibouti guarantees free health care to all its people, both citizens and refugees.”

Following him was Somalia’s Special Envoy to the United States, Abbukar Addow Arman. After admitting that “when it comes to famine and failed states, Somalia is the poster child,” Arman devoted most of his short and fairly pessimistic speech to an entertaining and engaging analogy dealing with Somalia’s place in the world: “Imagine a patient who suffers from multiple chronic illnesses and is comatose. Half his family debates with one another over which illness to treat first…and the other half is corrupted, they just go through his pockets…. Then the international community asks, ‘Why isn’t he paying his bills? Why doesn’t he take care of his family?'” It was a brilliant illustration of all the external pressures that act upon Somalia and why Somalia’s development must be dealt with “in a holistic manner.”

All the panelists having spoken and the lecture having gone over its allotted time, Sachs made some quick closing remarks, encouraged undergraduates to check out the new Sustainable Development major, and opened the floor to questions. One girl went up to the microphone and asked how the disputes between the Egyptian and Sudanese parties and the Eastern African bloc nations would affect the Drylands Initiative. Dr. Belay responded, “Egypt is very far from here and not included in the program.”

Map from Wikimedia Commons