The Sunny Side of Sachs

Free Speech, Free Eats lunch hour with Jeff Sachs reminds students that “aid need not be about giving a warlord a shoebox of money”  By Dana Watters For students inundated with lectures focused on deconstructing the world’s problems and news highlighting an ever-growing array of global conflicts, a discussion with Jeffrey Sachs is a departure from the norm. It’s more than a rare opportunity for them to direct the conversation with the Earth Institute’s director and one of SIPA’s most ubiquitous names – it’s an opportunity to recharge the sense of optimism that most students have long since lost. “I believe we can solve problems,” Sachs told students assembled for last Tuesday’s brown bag discussion. He doesn’t believe in perfection, he added. He believes in making things better, in trying to do things. “Not everything has to work perfectly to make things better off.” By the time they’ve finished their first year at SIPA, the bright-eyed idealism and youthful hunger for change has drained from most students. They become pragmatists, keenly aware of the trade-offs and constraints that characterize the international and public affairs fields. Most MIA students have only had an audience with Sachs once, during their first-semester Conceptual Foundations course, where his “States and Markets” lecture marks one of the fall term’s most engaging – and controversial – discussions. The twenty students attending SIPASA’s final “Free Speech, Free Eats” session of the semester not only enjoyed a much more intimate setting than the crowded auditorium where CF takes place. Previous sessions this spring have featured former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, Professor Sarah Holloway, and Vice-Dean Anne Waters. Attendees are capped at 20 students so as to provide the sort of intimate experience with professors that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Tuesday’s lunch discussion began with an open invitation for questions from the well-known professor, whose ongoing debate with fellow economist William Easterly is the stuff of legend. Unsurprisingly, the back-and-forth argument with Daron Acemoglu, largely in the form of papers and reviews, was among the suggested topics. Sachs is not known for holding back his criticism of contemporaries, and he made no exceptions over lunch. Dominant voices, he said, are training students to think about obstacles, problems, and what not to do – and it is a mistake. “The idea that aid necessarily destroys or disempowers people or institutions is simply wrong,” Sachs told students. “Aid need not be about giving a warlord a shoebox of money. Aid can and should be like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, saving lives by the millions.” “The world is complicated. There are potentially deep forces for good. There are people in need left aside from all of that for different reasons – partly because they live in deserts or mountains or because their society was overrun by Westerners or they have dark skin or are women. We can improve things, but it’s not automatic.” Robyn Wang (MIA ’15) was one of the attendees, and said the lunch got her rethinking her stance on international aid. “Jeffrey Sachs is used to being challenged about the way the Millennium projects have been carried out. He responds to the criticism by throwing the ball back and condemning the cynicism, inertia, and ignorance of donors,” she said. “It was a refreshing perspective to me because for a long time I always sided with the cynical camp,” added Wang. She came away from the discussion with the realization that it doesn’t matter if money is being used in the best possible way when there are people on the verge of death. She described Sachs as a modern day Robin Hood whose armor is academic tenure. Not everyone appreciates Sachs’ practical approach. While the city was buried under snow this winter, the cold peace that existed between Sachs and Easterly was melting. Nina Munk’s 2013 book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, prompted Easterly to declare victory in the aid war. Sachs responded with a digital blitzkrieg, holding an “Ask Me Anything,” or AMA, on Reddit and a Google Plus chat, as well as articles in Foreign Policy and other publications. The discussion touched on Sachs’ criticism of Easterly and other scholars, but the main message was that perfection is unrealistic and that there is no final victory in the battle against the many global problems that exist. The key, he told students, is continuing to try to improve things in spite of pushback. Such step-by-step success is possible. He concluded with a piece of advice. “Begging donors for money is not the most fun. I recommend becoming an incredibly rich philanthropist like Bill Gates.” Dana Sloane Watters is a second-year Master of International Affairs student. This story first ran in the print edition of The Morningside Post on May 6, 2014.

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