Sunday, April 15, 2007
We have to know when to stop
Posted by David Smith at 03:00 PM
Category: David Smith's other articles


An interview with Jeffrey Sachs, to mark his BBC Reith lectures. The lectures can be accessed here.

The world’s best known economist, once named by Time magazine as among the world’s most influential people, is small, neat and rushing to get his schedule back on track after a delayed flight from New York. Jeffrey Sachs has been a key influence on Bono, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Without Sachs, Blair’s Commission for Africa and the G8’s Gleneagles commitment to alleviating poverty in the continent would not have happened.

Bono, in an introduction to Sachs’s bestselling book of two years ago, The End of Poverty, described him as “the people’s economist”. Even one of his intellectual opponents, William Easterly of New York University, describes him as “simply the world’s greatest economic reformer” over the past two decades.

Sachs is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the United Nations Millennium Project, which pushes the internationally agreed goals of reducing extreme poverty, disease and hunger by 2015.

When we meet, ahead of the BBC’s Reith lectures that began last week, Sachs is lively and engaging. His series of five lectures will take him from London to China, America and back to Britain. And what has moved him is the chance to tap into a global audience.

“This is an opportunity to have a worldwide conversation,” he says. “It’s really a discussion about globalisation. While we can make globalisation work, we’re off on a seriously wrong course.

“The overarching theme is that the world has become extremely crowded. We are in each other’s faces as never before and we are pressing on the Earth’s environment as never before, 6.5 billion people putting out 7 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere — and finding ourselves in these disastrous wars as well. All should tell us that we’re in a different time from what we think and haven’t adjusted to the global crowding.

“It’s about population, environment, the deep interconnection across the world right now which is capable of producing conflict or cooperation. So far it is producing more conflict than cooperation. It’s also about the shifts in global power that are occurring. We have to do different things to make it work out.”

The title of his opening lecture, Bursting at the Seams, which he delivered at the Royal Society, has echoes of early doom-mongering. As long ago as 1972 the Club of Rome, an informal think tank, produced a bestselling book, The Limits to Growth, warning that the world was about to run up against serious resource constraints. Since then, the global economy has carried on growing and its population has risen from fewer than 4 billion to more than 6.5 billion.

But Sachs insists that the planet collectively has to act. “The world’s going to get a lot more crowded and it’s going to get a lot more crowded in its effect on the environment,” he says. “I’ve never viewed economics as a spectator sport where you just watch events pass by. I’ve viewed it as a set of tools we can use to help do things better.

“In terms of population, we really do have choices as to whether by mid-century this is going to be a world of 7.5 to 8 billion, or a world of 9 or 10 billion, or even a world more populated than that. When the United States slashes the aid budget for family planning that is a decision that takes you more towards a world of 10 billion. I think it is a tremendous mistake.”

Sachs does not pull his punches, particularly when it comes to his own government. He regards the Bush administration as a disaster and does not mind saying so. An embryonic “Sachs for president” campaign, started by students, is unlikely to get far. But he has a politician’s instinct for going for the jugular.

Money that could have been spent, not just on population control but on alleviating climate change, has been squandered to an “unbelievable” extent on “completely unnecessary and misguided wars like Iraq”, he says. “The choices we’re making right now are unrealistic and a complete waste of effort and opportunity.”

Do such criticisms mean that, at least as far as the White House is concerned — which he describes as “groping blindly in places it doesn’t understand” — he is operating from outside the tent, limiting his influence?

“We each have our parts to play — mine is to be as accurate as possible. I have the satisfaction that many things I have argued for were met with a no, but eventually became, not just a yes but an inevitable yes.

“My country’s an outlier in just about everything right now. It should be a major contributor to problem solving in the world. It’s absence from providing realistic solutions is obviously very disconcerting.”

He admires Blair’s initiatives on Africa and expects Brown to continue the good work. But he cannot allow the prime minister to escape the criticism he levels at Bush. “The biggest surprise is how this government allowed itself to be dragged in,” he says. “It’s a shock. You don’t need a Reith lecturer to tell you that.

“There’s no question Iraq is a significant negative. This has been a huge blunder for this country and history will judge it as such. I praised the leadership on Africa and on climate change, but it’s notable that — as much effort as has gone in — the results so far are mainly words and commitments. With all of the push they’ve made on Africa and on climate change there haven’t been real results on the ground.”

Sachs has been criticised, notably by Easterly, for putting such an emphasis on international aid and raising aid budgets in the rich countries to 0.7% of gross domestic product. Critics say pouring money into poor countries is a recipe for corruption and waste.

“The critics say, ‘Oh, he’s just after the money’,” Sachs says. “They don’t understand, it isn’t the money — it is the tools to empower the poor: 0.7% on a $35 trillion world GDP is absolutely enough to address Aids, TB, malaria and many other conditions.

“I’m hardly interested in the money per se, but what it can bring — fertiliser, high-yield seeds, antibiotics, antimalarials, antimalaria bed nets, bore holes for safe drinking water, piping for bringing water from safe places; things that are real, practical, cost a little bit but not a lot, and are lacking to such an extent that 10m people or more are dying each year because of their poverty.”

The second Reith lecture, Survival in the Anthropocene, to be broadcast this week, is about the challenges the world faces from climate change, hunger, and water and energy shortages. It will be followed by three others: The Great Convergence, Poverty in the Midst of Plenty and A New Politics for a New Age.

Through them all, Sachs will insist that his approach is practical, not theoretical. The millennium villages pilot projects he is running with the UN show that aid, properly administered, can indeed lift poor people out of poverty. The success rates, he says, have been “extraordinary”.

“I believe in the global market economy and I believe in global capitalism. There’s a lot of life in this system and, indeed, the economic growth of China and India is the greatest single triumph of the global economy right now,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of globalisation, that’s why I work to make it work better.”

From The Sunday Times, April 15 2007

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