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Millennium Voices: Harvard's Sachs Speaks For The Poor

  • Don Hill

Almost a decade ago, Harvard University economist Jeffrey Sachs toiled in the aftermath of Soviet communism. He advised countries long accustomed to central planning on how to make the transition to free markets. Now he labors on other continents to ease the plight of what he calls "the poorest of the poor." As part of RFE/RL's Millennium Voices series, correspondent Don Hill interviewed Sachs during the recent Forum 2000 conference in Prague.

Prague, 21 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- If a prophet is without honor in his own country, then Jeffrey Sachs qualifies as one. By his own account, the Harvard University economist has long been at war with the U.S. government and U.S.-dominated institutions like the International Monetary Fund.

He's regarded as a hero of sorts by many in Poland for his early economic guidance. That was when Poland was starting to privatize after the Poles ousted their communist governors. But he is often vilified -- in the United States as well as Russia -- for the unhappy outcome of his similar efforts in Russia. He accurately predicted that outcome more than six years ago, but his own country did not listen.

Recently he's turned much attention to the often-ignored problems of African and Asian poverty. As he puts it: "In our gilded age, the poorest of the poor are nearly invisible." He is raising his voice on their behalf.

"The theme that I have been bringing to the table is the situation of the poorest of the poor in the world -- the fact that there are a billion people that struggle for daily survival in the world. And that it would be quite straightforward to do something meaningful for them, including cancellation of the debts that they owe."

The economist argues that it is not backwardness, indolence, or faulty governance that accounts for the poverty of the poorest nations. It is location. Of the world's 42 highly indebted poor countries, he observes, 39 lie in the tropics or deserts, and the other three are landlocked and isolated. They suffer problems of disease, ecology, life-expectancy, and stabilized poverty that rich nations in temperate zones cannot readily recognize, Sachs says.

Sachs believes in the power of ideals and theories. He directs the Harvard Center for International Development and he teaches international trade at Harvard. He writes and publishes continually in popular and scholarly publications.

Attending Czech President Vaclav Havel's third annual Forum 2000 conference in Prague recently, Sachs participated in nearly every session. When asked if such conferences could be dismissed as merely a sackful of idealists spitting out ideas without any practical effect, he responded this way:

"Well, I know some of these idealists. They're people like Vaclav Havel, who just had ideas and ideals, and he helped bring down a government of tyranny. And Adam Michnik, who is another idealist, who had some simple ideas about truth in Poland and he helped to create a democratic revolution. Ideas count in this world. They don't count entirely (alone). Real power counts. Real wealth counts. And ideas count."

He laments that practical advances in science so often are designed to solve the problems of wealthy countries that can afford huge investments in research and technology. So, characteristically, one of his proposals for attacking malaria epidemics in poor countries mixes idealism, altruism and practical economics.

Rich countries, Sachs says, should commit firmly a large sum of money to buy an effective malaria vaccine for Africa's newborns, about 25 million of them a year, at, say, $10 per dose. The money committed would be paid out only after such a vaccine were developed. Such a pledge, Sachs says, would sound like a trumpet call to pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. In his words, "Malaria vaccine research would suddenly become hot."

Public institutions are unlikely to offer real help to the poorest countries, he says. Sachs says institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have overreached their bounds, taking on missions beyond what they were designed for. He charges that the international financial institutions have become mere tools of U.S. and Western foreign policy.

Meanwhile, he said, the United States undermines other institutions that could really help the poor.

"The UN agencies are very important, but in the United States they are very unpopular. And this is also a danger. The World Health Organization has a huge role to play right now but its budget is being squeezed by the United States. Same thing with UNICEF. Same thing with the United Nations Development Program. So we have a paradox of important agencies without the budget to carry out their tasks."

The economist flares at what he sees as the injustice of U.S. and other critics blaming him for the failure of the Russian economy.

He served for two years as economic adviser in the early 90s to Russian reformers Boris Fyodorov and Yegor Gaidar. But in January 1994, after Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his government backed away from reforms and demoted the reformers, Sachs abruptly resigned. News agencies reported Sachs's harsh words at the time.

Earlier he had characterized some changes as, in his words "inexcusable," showing a "communist mentality," and perhaps "conceived to cover corruption." On his resignation, he said this: "This is the return of the old guard under the nose of the West. There cannot be a return to communism, but the likelihood is a further spiral out of control."

So when he finds himself accused of setting Russia up for failure, the Harvard economist is indignant.

"Russia has not seen the likes of me for six and a half years, because I resigned as an adviser to Russia at the end of 1993 (sic), telling the world very clearly and very publicly that the reforms were seriously off course because the Russians were not doing them, because corruption was rising, and because the West was being really incompetent in its methods of interaction."

Some of Jeffrey Sachs's proposals for saving the world and its poor may seem as controversial as the "shock therapy" for communist countries was: a global environmental tax, prompt forgiveness of the debt of deserving poor countries, and special incentives for private business to solve otherwise unprofitable problems.

But, as he says, "No better time to start than as the new millennium begins."