The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty (Part Three)


The following is excerpted from The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, available this month from Random House. This is the final excerpt of three. To read the first two excerpts, click here and here.


Where on earth would the money come from to complete the work in the Millennium villages? I asked Sachs. "It is what it is," he replied. "And that's not meant to be callous."

It was 2012. He was fifty-seven and his hair was grayer than I'd remembered. He looked tired--"battle-scarred" was the phrase later used by one member of his staff. In a long, rambling interview in his office at Columbia University's Low Memorial Library, he answered my questions slowly, with less energy and more caution than usual.

Back in 2005, Sachs had set out to end extreme poverty once and for all, definitively: the title of his book, The End of Poverty, made clear the huge scope of his ambition. "This is a village that's going to make history," he had proclaimed in 2005, while visiting his first Millennium village with Angelina Jolie. "It's a village that's going to end extreme poverty."

Now, seven years later, he insisted that I'd misunderstood him. "My goal was to help end extreme poverty," he demurred. "And that remains my goal." His quest was more modest, more realistic than I had assumed: the Millennium Villages Project was not the definitive answer to poverty, he hedged, but a "working model." He was "optimistic that he could reach his targets in most places." He "hoped" (but was no longer certain, I inferred) that the project would continue and that it would be "as self-sustaining as possible."

"Am I trying to help governments see why this model is feasible and useful? Yes," he said. "Do they believe that? Yes. Do they want help doing that? Yes. Is that happening? In many ways, yes. Is it happening as well as it should happen? Not yet. One has to keep pushing."

Officially, the Millennium Villages Project wasn't scheduled to end until 2015, yet it seemed to me that Sachs had distanced himself from his ongoing African experiment. His impassioned articles and speeches and interviews and tweets now centered on income inequality in the United States, climate change, the collapse of Greece, tax reforms, greed on Wall Street, the decline of moral standards, chaos in the euro zone, gun control, and the political vacuum in Washington. He was all over the place.

Along with other left-leaning economists, he lobbied for a "Robin Hood tax" on Wall Street (take from the rich, give to the poor) and for raising America's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9.80. Shouting from a soapbox at Zuccotti Park, he joined the Occupy Wall Street protesters, decrying the immorality of the rich and powerful and accusing "reckless billionaires" of destroying the nation. "That's why we're here!" he roared, in the midst of the crowd. "It's not because we're envious! It's not because we think wealth is bad! It's because we think you cheat! It's because you don't follow the law! It's because you don't pay your taxes!"

He'd had a realization: the world's problems were so deeply interconnected that it was no longer possible to focus solely on poverty, hunger, and disease in Africa. "For a long time," he said, "I wanted to simplify the problems by putting aside the rich world's issues and so forth and focusing on extreme poverty. But it's all interconnected." A huge storm ("this very, very dark cloud," in his words) was moving in: humanity was facing an overwhelming number of urgent and overlapping economic, environmental, and social threats. The title of one of his many jeremiads is "A World Adrift."

In one of his op-eds published in The New York Times ("The New Progressive Movement"), Sachs outlined a manifesto for radical change in society: "To put it simply: tax the rich, end the wars and restore honest and effective government for all." In the Financial Times, he accused both Democrats and Republicans of being "accomplices to the premeditated asphyxiation of the state." Using his Twitter account (@JeffDSachs), he fired off hundreds of 140-character screeds: "The ancient Greeks called it kakistocracy: government by the most unprincipled"; "The people who 'won't' help themselves are the Wall Street bankers getting $$$$ taxpayer bailouts"; "Incompetent German leadership is killing the Eurozone"; "The 'debate' on energy shows the deceit & shortsightedness of our politics. Not a word about climate change. Gutless"; "America's a corporatocracy now"; "Memo to the next president: Need a plan to reduce carbon emissions and help save this planet"; "News Corp is neck deep in corruption. Fox, WSJ: lies & more lies"; "Washington caters to the rich, ignores the rest."

Sachs was like a sawed-off shotgun, scattering ammunition in all directions, and the result was a watering down of his message, whatever the message happened to be. The media no longer portrayed him as a "virtuoso" or a "wunderkind." The "Jeff Sachs for President" committee, established at the height of his celebrity in 2005, had been disbanded, its website a blank. His most recent book, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity, published in late 2011, had not been particularly well received: The New York Times hadn't bothered to review it.

For a brief time in the spring of 2012, Sachs put himself in the running to become president of the World Bank, though he had no hope of being elected. "Mr. Sachs's chances of getting the job are slim," to quote The Economist. "Mr. Sachs has . . . ridden the wave of celebrity, teaming up often with such stars as the U2 singer, Bono. But those days of poverty porn at rock concerts (slo-mo famine on giant screens to accompany the music) have also drawn to a close."

Sachs's office window was streaked with rain. He had spent nearly two hours answering my questions, and they were starting to irritate him. It had been a long day. For a few moments, we sat in silence. Then he said: "I believe in the contingency of life." There are no certainties. Nothing can be predicted. "When I say I have conviction, it's the conviction that this is the best we can do. I'm not betting the planet on anything. This isn't one grand roll of the dice. The world is complicated, hard, and messy."

In the beginning, Jeffrey Sachs had set out on a quest to validate his scientific approach to ending poverty. He'd used the Millennium Villages Project as a laboratory to test his theories and to prove that his series of "interventions" could transform the lives of the world's poorest people. He'd spent more than $120 million on his experiment. For all that, however, he had misjudged the complex, shifting reality in the villages. Africa is not a laboratory: Africa is chaotic and messy and unpredictable.

"You can have a firm conviction even in an uncertain world--it's the best you can do, actually--and that is the nature of my conviction," Sachs concluded. "I don't feel it's worth asking if this is the best of the best--it's the best we can do with what we have."