Whenever he opens his mouth, the world-renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs
speaks truth to power. Or so it seems to me, having heard him twice in the past few days.
The first time was over the weekend at the “What We Stand For”
conference, where he brought more than
800 liberal Democrats to their feet with an extemporaneous speech that did
not rely on rhetorical fireworks but rather on a simple statement of facts and an unadorned
declaration of outrage.
He looked at his watch and noted that the day had just ended in
sub-Saharan Africa. “Fifteen thousand people have just died,” he said, from AIDS, malaria,
tuberculosis and other diseases. Another 15,000 would die the next day, and the next, and the
next, every day for the rest of the year.
“We are the generation that could end extreme poverty on this planet,” Sach
went on after a moment of stunned silence. “If we were serious about our security, there is
so much we could do. And we’re doing everything wrong. I don’t think there’s any excuse or ever
was any excuse for supporting this [Bush] gang.”
He pointed out the fact that the Pentagon’s $450 billion budget “is half the world’s military
expenditures” and compares with just $13 billion in U.S. foreign aid.
Sachs, 50, does not cut a physically impressive figure. On the contrary, he is short, slight,
wears wire-rimmed glasses, and looks somewhat rumpled in his suit and tie. He speaks in a flat
Midwestern accent. The only physical hint of the ferocious zest underlying his academic
demeanour is a mop of black hair, which gives this Harvard-trained scholar the oddly
boyish aura of a grown-up Denace the Menace. (The New York Times Magazine once
cited him as “probably the most important economist in the world.”)
The second time I heard him speak was yesterday to a gathering of
environmentalists at the German Mission to the U.N. He pointed out that the world’s
downward spiral has forced the U.N. to delay its Millennium Development Goals by a decade
and a half. The new target year for cutting extreme poverty in half, halting the spread of
HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, among many others millenium goals, is
“With all of our successes, we have massive waves of degradation,” said Sachs, who is
Special Advisor to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and the director of the Earth Institute at
Columbia University. The last four years, “have been wasted” largely by violence, he said,
pointing to the war in Iraq and armed conflicts all over the globe.
“I feel it particularly hard to be optimistic today,” he added, “when U.S. helicopter gunships
have killed 40 people in a wedding party [in Iraq] and an Israeli gunship has killed 10 people [in
Gaza]. I’m pretty depressed.”
Sachs was referring to a U.S. military attack along the Syrian border, which the Pentagon
denies struck a wedding party. The Israeli attack in
Gaza, which has been condemned by the U.N. Security Council (with
the U.S. abstaining) and for which the Israeli Army has expressed “deep sorrow over the loss of civilian
lives,” is under investigation by Israeli authorities.
At the environmental conference, where winners of the U.N.’s Equator Prize for 2004
and others spoke about biodiversity, Sachs explained that among the various Millenium
Development Goals one of the most significant is to obtain contributions from each donor nation
amounting to 0.7 percent of its Gross National Product.
“How many times has President Bush said how important it is to meet the Millenium Goals?”
Sachs asked. “President Bush — I’m still waiting.” The U.S. donation amounts to 0.13 percent of
GNP, “the lowest level” of all the donor countries. Three billion people across the world — half of
the global population — live on less than $2 a day, and a significant portion of them
live on less than $1 a day. “I plead with the leaders,” Sachs said. “Don’t tell me about
‘donor fatigue’ when we have just gotten started.”