I wrote this piece months ago – 15Apr2012, to be precise. It came out of one of my best Columbia experiences – a one-on-one hour long conversation with Jeffrey Sachs. It was also the time when the selection of the new World Bank President was going on in full swing. Sachs was originally one of the main contenders, but pulled himself out of the race after Dr.Kim, whom he endorsed, was nominated.
Jeffrey Sachs is as elusive as he is eloquent. But, with reason – over the last week itself he was in South Sudan fighting Malaria one day, at a conference in the UK the next, and the day after was in Bangladesh; Not to forget his teaching commitments back home and the buzz around his World Bank presidency nomination.
Finally, I did get an interview. As I was walking up to one of Low Library’s majestic rooms where Sachs sits as Director of Earth Institute, I was expecting a brief 15-minute meeting with short answers to my questions. Instead, I was treated to coffee and an hour long sit-down chat with him. It was hard to not be overwhelmed in a room decorated with certificates from the world’s most prestigious institutes and adorned with framed photos of fun moments with President Obama, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Angelina Jolie and Bono to name a few.
Columbia University and SIPA are proud of playing home-ground to Sachs. But Sachs himself is a thoroughbred Harvard-ian. He spent 20 years as a student, PhD candidate and professor at Harvard. After this, he became economic advisor for governments in Latin America and Easter. Over time, he has worked on key development issues ranging from public health to poverty and climate change. He was director of the Millennium Villages Project and works as advisor to UN Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals. From being honored with India’s Padma Bushan award to being ranked among the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine, he is often called the world’s most popular economist.
I start the conversation by rewinding 44 years. I was curious to understand his motivations and early career. It all began when he was only 16, on what he calls an ‘eye-opening’ trip to the erstwhile Soviet Union. “My own career path was not predicted by me or by anybody”, he says. He was and still is fascinated by the world and wanted to see and understand it. In the process, he grabbed every opportunity that came his way. At the end of high school, a pen-pal invited him to East Germany – a trip he claims that changed his life. To him the complications of the world seemed like a puzzle which he wanted to solve. Soon, he travelled to India-a journey which carried him a long way in terms of his interests. “I was captivated by its beauty and poverty, and thought that if I can somehow understand this, maybe someday I can participate in solving some world problems.”
He considers himself lucky get quick promotions at Harvard. Just as he received his tenure in 1983, he was invited to Bolivia to work on their hyperinflation problem. “From then on, it has been an adventure which has taken me to over 130 countries and led me to work in over a dozen of them. I find things endlessly fascinating and how the world keeps changing. I have to keep running faster to keep pace.”
These travels have helped him see the world from various angles and understand development issues better. He is a strong advocate of a holistic approach to development. “Having seen the world from different vantage points- from villages to G8 summits, from the richest to the poorest countries, from academia to governments, from interactions with civil society and business; I have understood that the comparative and holistic approach is the right one. If there is one thing that frustrates me, it is people’s tendency to claim that there is one truth, one solution to any problem.”
I move on to talk about his controversial economic reforms in Eastern Europe. After the Soviet disintegrated, Sachs suggested ‘shock therapies’ to enable the newly formed countries move away from communist economies. I asked him if he would handle things differently now. Would he modify the way he implemented his polices? “Probably, yes. For anything I have been involved in, I would do it better now than I did 25 years ago. On the other hand, I am very proud of what I did then. It was based on my best judgment after a very serious and close study of the situation.”
On how he tackles the criticisms on the above, he accepts them as part of his reality and tries not to make a big deal out of it. He feels that in order to work with some of the world’s biggest challenges, one has to accept criticism as part of life. “The problems and solutions I worked on were results of historical events which have overwhelming processes and dynamics.” He laughs off some of the allegations of destroying the Soviet economy by saying that the Soviet Union had already ended and the economy was in distress much before he even started working there. “These ideas are so preposterous that I have never really understood them. Maybe, it is hard to understand for people that are not closely involved with these historical events.” He uses an interesting analogy of being a doctor in an Emergency Room, who has to perform a quick and unaesthetic surgery to save the patient. His critics, in the guise of untrained spectators shouting at the doctor are not helpful to anyone.
As economic advisor for Poland, Sachs helped the nation liberalize and privatize its economy. Once considered a free-market advocate, Sachs is now pushing for more government intervention in America. His latest best-selling book The Price of Civilization, investigates how America got into its current bad place because of bad government policies. He suggests that it is time for some repair. Has he changed gears? To this he reacts strongly, and emphasizes that he has always strongly pushed for a ‘mixed economy’. He explains that the given problems and initial conditions define the direction of his work. To this point, he elaborates how Poland wanted to exit the communist regime and be part of Europe and his policies for liberalization and convertible currencies only helped them achieve the result faster. Poland decided the end result themselves; he only provided the economic tools. “I have often been misinterpreted. I find it silly when people accuse me of being a free-market activist and now switching over to a statist view point.” Right now, he feels America needs better taxation, fiscal policies and education. “If I had to choose a label, even though I hate labels, I’d call myself a social democrat.”
On America, I ask him about what he feels is the single biggest problem the country faces in today’s tough times. He replies immediately, “Political institutions don’t represent the people anymore. There is too much money politics and no more people politics. This has distorted what America stands for.” According to him, both parties cater to the wealthy and work towards the mobilization of capital rather than towards the benefit of its citizens. This manifests itself in inequality.
While Sachs was in the news about his views on American politics in recent times, he was certainly subject of world news when he self-nominated himself as a candidate for the World Bank’s next President. Is he disappointed that President Obama did not nominate him? “Of course, yes”, he says. “I had quite some support in Washington and Congress. I changed the terms of the debate. President Obama in his nomination speech said that it was time for a development specialist to take over. These were words that I had started my campaign with.” However, he follows this by saying that he is extremely happy that Dr.Jim Kim has been nominated. He is impressed with Dr.Kim as a visionary and a great manager. He fully backs him and has withdrawn himself from the campaign so as to not split the field.
His self-nomination came through a series of op-eds and tweets. Does this make him a believer in media’s influential role in world affairs? “I am a huge believer. I had a one-month long campaign that generated world-wide discussion and political support – and it did not cost me one penny! Media has helped people inspire others and get ideas across without spending a billion bucks.” He is also a huge fan of information technology. His Millennium Villages Project uses IT to achieve low-cost and quick solutions.
Moving over to his personal life, we spoke about how involved his family was in his projects around the world. “I take my family all the time. It is a family adventure and a family commitment. This makes it ten times more fun than it would have been otherwise.”
Before coming in to this interview, I interviewed a handful of SIPA students about their thoughts on Jeff Sachs. It is very rare that SIPA students ascribe adjectives like charming, smart, utopian, practical-all about one person, much less a professor! One of the students even described him as the most well-dressed and best-smelling professor at the school. So, I ended the interview by asking for his advice to SIPA students who dream of changing the world. Sachs repeatedly said the key was to never lose sight of the big questions. He believes that sustainable development will be the next big thing. He underlined the importance of never missing out on opportunities for any excuse: when he was asked to work on Bolivia, he claims to have even known where it was on the map. “Always keep your core interests in mind. Keep an open mind, read a lot and work, work, work! The world is too complicated to have simple answers”.