Alex Bilmes

Sachs appeal

Angelina Jolie tells Alex Bilmes about her enthusiasm for the hottest economist on the block

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Recently I found myself idling away an afternoon in Angelina Jolie’s Winnebago. Angelina and I were discussing books. More specifically, she was talking me through her taste in erotic fiction, which spans the centuries from the Marquis de Sade to ‘more modern stuff’.

‘Sometimes,’ she remarked, ‘you find a passage that works for you and you can go back to it over and over.’ Crikey!

Glancing around her rather anonymous trailer, parked inside a vast hangar about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, I was disappointed to see no evidence to support her claim to an interest in mucky literature. Instead, there was only one book on her sofa, there to keep her company during the longueurs that accompany the shooting of any big Hollywood film. The book was The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time by the American economist Jeffrey Sachs.

I’ve met Angelina before, so I wasn’t especially surprised by this discovery. She has a reputation as a man-eater (not entirely undeserved, I’m sure; perhaps I just don’t look very appetising) and as a bit of a loon (no argument from her there), but her great passion is for philanthropy.

Angelina donates a third of her considerable income — she earns about $12 million per film — to charity; she is an ambassador for the UNHCR, on behalf of which she has lobbied Congress and frequently travels to Third-World trouble-spots; her adopted son, Maddox, comes from an orphanage in Cambodia, where earlier this year she accepted citizenship; and she recently accompanied Sachs to Davos in Switzerland where the World Economic Forum, a pro-globalisation group, has its annual shebang.

Sachs has other friends in glamorous places. His most high-profile celebrity chum is Bono, the U2 singer. Bono wrote the introduction to The End of Poverty. It’s the sort of introduction one could imagine being read aloud to a stadium full of pop fans, perhaps even by Sachs himself. The economist, writes Bono, has a voice ‘louder than any electric guitar, heavier than heavy metal’.

Sachs’s book, which was published here on 7 April in a Penguin paperback edition with a cuddlier, more ‘inclusive’ subhead: ‘How We Can Make It Happen In Our Lifetime’, is an account of his 25 years as an expert on international finance. One of the youngest tenured professors in the history of the Harvard economics department, he made his name in 1985 by ending three-years of Bolivian hyperinflation just seven weeks after touching down in La Paz.

From South America he moved on to Poland and Russia, where he played a decisive — some would say divisive — role in those countries’ choppy journeys from communism to capitalism. More recently, his work has taken him to sub-Saharan Africa.

Since 2002 Sachs has been leading the Earth Institute at Columbia University, in New York, and working as a special adviser to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, directing the United Nations Millennium Project. He recently helped publish a plan to halve world poverty by 2015, in line with the target agreed at the UN’s millennium summit in 2000. ‘Make Poverty History’ is the rather optimistic slogan.

The Millennium Project calls on all rich countries to double their financial assistance to poor countries. Sachs effectively says that not only can the West afford to do this but it can’t afford not to do it. He says that by 2025 he can envision a world in which there is no extreme poverty at all. And he appears to be saying that the way to achieve this goal is through the practice of unfettered global capitalism.

Sachs’s idea is that the outsourcing of production, labour and services to Asia, Africa and other economically blighted areas of the world are to poor people’s benefit rather than their detriment. He argues that far from being exploited by multinational corporations, Third-World countries have benefited from foreign direct investment (FDI). He cites India and China as examples of places where GDP per capita has risen and poverty has fallen thanks to overseas investment.

These countries still require aid so that they can create the right conditions to stimulate economic growth. But the aid needs to be distributed more intelligently than it has been.

Sachs concedes that in the past there has been much mismanagement of aid, and that unstable governments, particularly in Africa, where vast foreign resources have been directed at stimulating economic growth, have not helped well-meaning Westerners — or even unfeeling, purely profit-driven Westerners — to combat Third-World poverty. In response, he has a new approach called ‘clinical economics’ which purports to identify the specific needs of different countries. He says that clinical economists can recognise the myriad different ways that aid can be used to stoke these economies and make them viable prospects for FDI.

Aid will then be viewed not as a hand-out but as an investment. Free trade will be harnessed to end Third-World poverty, rather than entrench it.

Sachs’s book is dense, and not an especially sexy read, and yet it has begun to occupy shelf space in the homes of fashionable chattering types, like the lovely Angelina.

What can we draw from this? Well, first that, in PR terms at least, the anti-globalisation movement, so fashionable in the late Nineties and at the beginning of this decade, has been outmanoeuvred by pro-multinational free-marketeers.

Second, that the bible of the antis, Naomi Klein’s No Logo, a dour anti-consumer-brand tract written by an ascetic thirtysomething Canadian academic, has been superseded by a relentlessly optimistic geopolitical manifesto by a jet-setting 50-year-old American academic.

Third, that all those anti-globo demonstrators were barking up the wrong rainforest. Instead of chucking wheelie bins through the windows of McDonald’s, getting their hemp knickers in a twist about police brutality or staying at home to knit their own muesli, they’d have been better off gorging on McFlurrys and applying for charge-cards at Gap, like the rest of us.

Doubtless The End of Poverty will be shelved alongside all those other bought and unread bestsellers in trendy homes across the land. It’s already there in my gaff, nuzzling up to old Dr Atkins and that Monica Ali novel with the pretty spine.

No matter. Bono and his famous friends have scanned Sachs on all our behalfs, so we needn’t bother. We can read mucky books instead, safe in the knowledge that the grateful ink-producers of Kuala Lumpur, the humble book-binders of Addis Ababa and the tireless typesetters of Honduras are enriching themselves on the profits of our filthy consumerist habits. Good news all round, really.

Alex Bilmes is features editor of GQ.

Letter from Jeffrey Sachs, page 30.