It’s not everyone who can call both world leaders and rock stars friends, but it's all part of a bigger goal for economist Jeffrey Sachs, and the purpose could not be more serious. He’s the subject of this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.
He has given economic advice to governments all over the world and he is trying to end extreme poverty in Africa in our lifetime. Big issues; bold projects, and yet, it’s his wife who balances the books in his house.
“Are you kidding? We need serious fiscal responsibility!” says Sachs.
Jeffrey Sachs lives on the upper west side and works at Columbia University as an economics professor and director of the Earth Institute. But as special advisor first to Kofi Annan and now to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, he really lives in the global village.
"Usually by the time that I head off to work at Columbia in the morning I've already been engaged somehow with half of dozen countries in some challenge,” says Sachs.
And that's when he's home. In one week in March, he met with government officials in China, Japan and Korea, and he often visits African villages as part of his UN work.
Even at home, Sachs connects the most mundane of daily activities — getting water for a hot cup of coffee — with Africa.
"I think, OK that's eight hours of work for an African woman that I was able to accomplish in the last 30 seconds,” says Sachs.
Sachs is so busy that his wife Sonia, who is a pediatrician, has often joked that she is a happily married single mother of three. But Sachs says he hasn't had to sacrifice to pursue his passion, because his wife and three kids often travel with him.
“That's the only way, by the way, I could ever do this,” says Sachs. “It would be impossible otherwise. I’m not a kind of loner who is ready to go off for weeks or months away from family. I could never do this is somehow this wasn't compatible with our family life."
For the last decade, Sachs has been known as the economist who is arguably the most prominent face in the fight against extreme poverty in Africa. He first visited the continent in 1995.
“You see a child die for the first time, it’s unbelievable. That's not something that I expected growing up that I would ever experience. Death so much in one's face,” says Sachs.
He argues that it's necessary to address the problems — anti-malarial bed nets, medicine, clean water, infrastructure, health clinics — and not just some of them, to get African nations to a place where they can help themselves.
Sachs's appeal extends from journalists and public officials, as the letters on his office wall attest, to rock stars and celebrities. That cachet helps the professor to spread the word in a different type of classroom, as he did at an event with musician John Legend at Columbia.
“Would it be heroic for us to give one percent of our income, for example, to the solution of global poverty? Because that would be more than enough, paradoxically, but we don't even do a fifth of that,” says Sachs.
His critics charge that his policies are na•ve, don't address the problem of corruption and that many newly developed countries succeed without a great deal of foreign aid.
Sachs says with a project this big, some criticism is natural.
But he wonders: have the critics done their homework, and do they know the situation on the ground?
“Sometimes it's so far off base and, if I could put it this way, sometimes so academic, because it doesn't have any of the real feel of the ground, of the circumstances, of the actual forces at play that isn't that very helpful,” says Sachs.
As an economist, Sachs often has to predict how his policies will affect the governments he advises. But one prediction he made to his wife could not have been more off.
"Once my dissertation was done things will slow down a bit and then I said maybe after I get tenure things will slow down a bit and maybe after the Bolivian hyperinflation is brought under control, I promise things will· oh but gotta go to Poland, but things will slow down a bit. And after a while she said, Îforget it!’” says Sachs.
Slow down? Certainly not at Harvard, where he earned his Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhD and became a full professor by the age of 29. Sachs enjoyed teaching, but he sensed there was something else out there.
“I certainly was always intent on finding ways to bridge a world of thinking and ideas with the world of action,” says Sachs.
The seeds of his latest book, "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet" were planted at a Harvard seminar in 1985, when Sachs made a suggestion on hyperinflation in Bolivia.
“Somebody piped up from the back of the room, ÎHey, if you think you know what to do, why don’t you come?’ And I kind of laughed and then they pressed the point. I had to go home and look up on the map where exactly Bolivia was,” says Sachs.
A few weeks later, he was in Bolivia. It led to work with other governments in Latin America. And then to Poland, where he offered proposals to a high government official on the transition from communism to a market economy.
"My colleague and I said, ÎOK, we’re going back tomorrow and we will write up something and we will send it to you in a week or two,’” recalls Sachs. “’No! Tomorrow morning,’ he said. I was like, ÎWhat?’ He said, ÎI need it for Lech Walesa tomorrow morning!’"
The next morning, Lech Walesa had the proposal.
Sachs' reputation for helping governments brought him to Moscow in the early ’90s, and he was in the room when Boris Yeltsin made an historic announcement.
“’I've been in a meeting next room with the leaders of the Soviet army and I can tell you the Soviet Union is over.’ I was there hearing that from him across the table and so that was kind of unforgettable life moment,” says Sachs.
But Sachs received a lot of criticism for his economic advice to Russia. Critics charged that the changes were too drastic.
Sachs counters that the United States didn't follow his recommendation to give short term financial support to strengthen young Democratic institutions and the troubled economy of a vast country spread out over 11 times zones, spun out of control.
"The winds blowing, the controversy swirling, the collapse of the old system — it felt like being in the middle of the hurricane,” says Sachs.
For the last decade, his primary focus has been Africa.
In his work with the UN and the Millennium Project, he has stated a goal to end extreme poverty by the year 2025.
Sachs is a persuasive force with some powerful friends.
He doesn't doubt that he has the right answers — bed nets to fight malaria, medicines, mechanisms for clean water, and other ideas. But can he persuade enough people to make this everyone's priority?
"Of course, there are doubts and uncertainties, but not the kind that gnaw at me to say stop doing this, but just the uncertainties of life, of where is the world heading and can we find the way to make good on what we can do?” says Sachs.
It’s an unusual existence for an economist: Meetings with Pope John Paul II and leaders around the world, hearing his name called at rock concerts, and perhaps most importantly, connecting with people across culture, race, language, everything.
“In a village where you've been able to see that there are no barriers to making the connection that makes your own life have value and more valuable and being able to help someone else, it’s all a treasure. It's amazing,” says Sachs.
— Budd Mishkin