There's Bono hobnobbing with President Bush at the White House, advising U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and rocking at the Live 8 concert in London. The charismatic frontman for the Irish rock group U2 certainly seems to be at the epicenter of recent efforts to end African poverty. While Bono did help focus the world's attention on Africa's dire poverty, the big player in the fight against global poverty these days is superstar economist Jeffrey Sachs.
Indeed, Bono calls Sachs “my professor,” adding, “In time, his autograph will be worth a lot more than mine.”
Operating from well within the establishment, first as director of Harvard University's Institute for International Development, now as director of both Columbia's Earth Institute and the U.N. Millennium Project, the 51-year-old Sachs provides the intellectual backing for the key demand of activists worldwide: End poverty fast.
More precisely, Sachs has laid out a plan to end extreme poverty by 2025. His ideas spring from the central thesis that desperately poor countries — nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa — are beset by problematic geography (including a climate that's uniquely hospitable to drought and mosquitoes) and ugly colonial history. Moreover, because they weren't on the Cold War front lines during the 1980s and '90s, they didn't rate the big-time U.S. aid that helped lift South Korea and Taiwan into prosperity.
Only massive and well-targeted aid can break through Africa's “poverty trap,” Sachs told Mother Jones magazine. “Once they're on the first rung of the ladder of development, they'll start climbing just like the rest of the world.”
By traditional global-development standards, which measured progress in tiny steps, Sachs' vision is breathtakingly ambitious. But, as he reminds doubters, ending slavery and then the Jim Crow system seemed like unattainable goals for America, as did throwing the colonial powers out of Africa and Asia. “They took decades to bring to fruition; perseverance was the key,” he writes. “In the same way, the end of poverty will come quickly, marked by a rapid transition.”
Sachs knows about rapid transitions. As a young professor, he virtually stumbled into advising the Bolivian government in 1985, when it was fighting ruinous inflation. Sachs' plan worked, and he went on to advise the post-Soviet governments of Poland and Russia. Those assignments led him into the intensive, firsthand study of deep poverty.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sachs, who was already working with U.N. agencies, offered to help Annan “lead the world in fulfillment of the hopes of the new millennium.” Sachs got the assignment of figuring out how to see that the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals — aimed at halving extreme poverty by 2015 — were met.
Not surprisingly for a professor who has cast himself as a key player on the world stage, Sachs has his critics. “There is, for one thing, the matter of Sachs' ego,” wrote Daniel W. Drezner, a University of Chicago political scientist, in reviewing Sachs' widely praised new book, The End of Poverty. “Anyone who writes that 'as a young faculty member, I lectured widely to high acclaim, published broadly and was on a rapid academic climb to tenure, which I received in 1983, when I was 28,' clearly lacks the gift of understatement.”
Economist Jeffrey Sachs says massive infusions of well-targeted aid can end extreme poverty. (Getty Images/Mario Tama)
Drezner and others also note that some of Sachs' ideas are really reheated policies from the early years of development economics. If ending poverty is, as Sachs argues, so easy, “Why haven't five decades of effort gotten the job done?” William Easterly, a former World Bank economist now at New York University, asked in another — and largely critical — review of Sachs' book. “Sachs should redirect some of his outrage at the question of why the previous $2.3 trillion didn't reach the poor so that the next $2.3 trillion does. In fact, ending poverty is not easy at all.”
Easterly's review sent Sachs, characteristically, into counter-attack mode. “Easterly's World Bank experience made him into a dystopian, seeing the worst in everything and expecting failure everywhere,” he wrote. “I have had the good fortune to participate in successful efforts to stop hyperinflations, introduce new and stable national currencies, convert centrally planned economies to market economies and establish the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and malaria.”
Other anti-poverty veterans profess amusement at Sachs' lack of modesty but concede that his supreme self-confidence helped focus attention and money on a region that needs plenty of both.
One Africa expert who has tangled with Sachs but respects him doesn't want to discuss him on the record. “I need to deal with him,” the expert says. “He's The Man.”