Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Facing a food crisis, optimist finds hope in the dismal science

from The Globe and Mail

Jeffrey Sachs's ‘yes we can' attitude has its fair share of supporters – and detractors


NEW YORK — More than two decades ago, long before ambition and optimism conspired to make him the Man Who Would Save the World, Jeffrey Sachs was merely the Man Who Would Save Bolivia.

As a precocious 28-year-old, already a tenured professor in Harvard's economics department, Mr. Sachs attended a lecture on the South American country's growing financial crisis. After listening to one speaker enumerate a host of ills, chief among them a crippling rate of inflation, he stood up and confidently declared, “I can fix that.”

Mr. Sachs might be seen as the Barack Obama of the economics world, a self-appointed saviour who, no matter how seemingly intractable the problem, is there to smilingly reassure us that “yes we can.”

Not long after that Harvard seminar, he was on a plane to La Paz, where he counselled the Bolivian government on a program of “shock therapy” that dramatically reduced its hyperinflation. That success, in turn, led to similar advisory roles in Poland and Russia after the fall of communism, transforming him into perhaps the world's most high-profile economist (he was twice named one of the most 100 influential people in the world by Time magazine).

In recent years, as Mr. Sachs has become a special adviser to the UN Secretary-General, and shifted his attention to the more expansive and complex issues of extreme poverty, climate change and AIDS, this rock star appeal has continued to grow (Bono, of U2 fame, has become a vocal acolyte).

But so too have the doubters, who question whether Mr. Sachs's “yes we can” prescription of more government intervention and improved co-operation among the global community isn't more than a little rose-tinted.

“Even though there is a lot of confusion, a lot of inertia, a lot of normal negativity coming from powerful groups, a lot of vested interests – all of this I believe can still be surmounted by good information understood by the public,” Mr. Sachs, now 53, explained during an interview recently at his Manhattan home, near Central Park. “They would like to see solutions to problems.”

This conviction lies at the heart of his latest book, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, a blueprint of sorts for navigating both the perils of a burgeoning population, and the corresponding strain it is placing on our natural resources.

Philosophically, his proposed remedies are more closely aligned with the left-leaning John Maynard Keynes than they are with Milton Friedman, but Mr. Sachs, who is also director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, has clearly been influenced by both.

Like Mr. Friedman, he believes in market solutions for many economic issues – he just doesn't think that unfettered markets, left to their own devices, will lift Africans out of abject poverty or stamp out environmental degradation. These crises, he insists, require strong public policies to align private interests with the goals of sustainable development.

Mr. Sachs, who is a diminutive man with boyish looks, a ready smile and a helmet of implacable hair, has an academic's tendency to lecture on these subjects, rather than converse.

And while his diagnosis is undeniably grim, he never succumbs to Malthusian pessimism. Quite the opposite. He is exhortative rather than shrill, hopeful rather than plaintive, even as he ticks off a list of calamities ranging from the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery, to the more than one billion people trapped in extreme poverty, to the AIDS pandemic in Africa and the looming possibility of massive species extinction.

“You might ask why I'm cheerful and optimistic,” he acknowledged. “What I can tell you is that eight years ago, not one single African was being treated for AIDS with antiretroviral medicines. Bed-net distribution was at a standstill. The use of old and ineffective medicines for malaria was still rampant, and it looked pretty much like this food situation right now, where the international community was giving speeches – and doing essentially nothing.”

The spiralling cost of food, which has already sparked riots in poorer regions of the world, will provide an immediate test of Mr. Sachs's optimism.

The UN's World Food Program has made an impassioned plea for $775-million (U.S.) in emergency funding, saying it cannot afford to buy enough grain at these inflated prices. Even if it is successful, the cash would be little more than a Band-Aid: The long-term solution, Mr. Sachs believes, is multifaceted, and involves putting the brakes on the U.S. ethanol industry, creating a $5-billion fund for agriculture, and financing better research and development for crop technologies in the developing world.

The obvious glitch here – and it's one that underlies each of Mr. Sachs's main objectives, whether it be eradicating extreme poverty, curbing population growth, or fighting environmental degradation – is the need for a new spirit of global co-operation, one in which political leaders with differing agendas can be mobilized in the pursuit of shared goals. These ambitious goals require much more collaboration, not to mention cash, than handing out malarial bed netting.

“Sustainability has to be a choice, a choice of a global society that thinks ahead and acts in unaccustomed harmony,” he states matter-of-factly in the book. “Governments will have to be restructured for such twenty-first century problems,” he declares at another point.

Mr. Sachs believes the cost of inaction is too great for governments to ignore; yet critics fasten upon these statements as fanciful, proof of a well-intentioned naiveté.

Take the food example. The ethanol industry, despite fierce criticism from many around the world, soldiers on, fuelled by the powerful U.S. corn lobby. Several countries have recently imposed export bans on key crops, choosing a path of self-interest rather than co-operation. Agricultural research budgets for Africa are in the process of being slashed, rather than augmented. And the United States continues to direct most of its spending at the war in Iraq, making it more difficult to solicit more food aid from the world's wealthiest nation.

But Mr. Sachs, optimist that he is, shrugs off the criticism as little more than defeatist cynicism, pointing out that not long ago it was a struggle merely to convince corporate interests that climate change was real.

“My experience in life over many, many issues is that in the end, the truth comes out,” he said. “It usually takes longer than I think, but it also usually is more relentless than the short-run political analysis allows for.”

He insists that the path to salvation lies in a multidisciplinary approach; private players must work with willing governments, academics, scientists and non-governmental organizations to create sustainable technologies.

These technologies are where he places a great deal of faith – not merely in their ability to help contain some of the environmental damage (carbon capture sequestration is an example he's fond of citing) but to improve agricultural yields with more resistant, bountiful seeds.

One of the biggest challenges, he concedes, is reversing the course of U.S. foreign policy. Throughout his book, he discusses a rebalancing of economic power that will soon find its centre of gravity in Asia, rather than the United States. Such monumental transitions have been the bedfellows of political hostility and even wars in the past – all the more reason, he says, that the United States must jettison its unilateralist approach on the world stage and become a better global citizen.

No comments: