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[W]e're all members of the Frisbeetarian Order. . . . We believe that when you die your soul goes up on a roof and you can't get it down. -- Bono

Rock Star Remedial Economics 101

@U2

"I am a Jeff Sachs groupie," Bono announced from the Skirball Center stage at New York University on October 5, 2005. About thirty minutes before introducing Jeffrey Sachs at the Glucksman Ireland House Inaugural Daniel Patrick Moynihan Lecture, all of Bono's devoted followers were outside the building pining for a photo or an autograph. The sense of excitement for a rock star is the same sense of excitement Bono has for the world's most prolific economists helping to solve the problem of extreme poverty on this planet.

In a twelve-minute introduction of the Columbia professor, Bono confessed, "I used to hang around backstage until he let me take his class. He promised to teach me more about the economic argument -- the debt relief. It is true, he took me on. Rock star remedial economics. I studied with him on campus. I studied with him on the phone. I studied with him at 36,000 feet above the continent of Africa."

This passion for studying the poverty issues confronting Africans has been in Bono's blood for over 20 years. For Professor Sachs, this passion has been thriving within for even longer. Professor Sachs has found ways to answer those questions through advising governments and college students. Since graduating with his bachelors (1976), masters (1978), and doctorate (1980) degrees from Harvard University, he has served as an advisor to the governments of Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Mongolia, Indonesia, as well as serving as the Director of the U.N. Millennium Project and Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Loretta Brennan Glucksman, Founder and Chairperson of the Glucksman Ireland House at NYU, said, "The idea to invite Dr. Jeffrey Sachs to present the inaugural Moynihan Lecture and to be introduced by his friend and colleague, Bono, came from another of our active and interested directors from Ireland, Kathy Gilfillan" (Paul McGuinness' wife).

The attendees at the sold-out Skirball Center were diverse, ranging from the typical U2 fan to government politician, university professor, and rock star. National media were represented: CNN and Business Week, to name a few. Ages ranged between 18 and 85, and all were quite taken by the stories Professor Sachs told of the villages in Malawi, Africa, and how hundreds of thousands of lives can be saved for pennies on the hundreds of dollars. Just the night before, Professor Sachs was sharing this same message on the needs of Africa at a religious service at Harvard University. This night, Professor Sachs was asking all of the big questions involved: "What are we doing on the planet, and how can we do something useful? How can we use politics and economics to do it?"

I have heard it said so many times from Bono, but it took Professor Sachs' testimony for the message to hit home: Global poverty as it is known now is quite clearly, as Bono says, "stupid poverty." Money that we take for granted, such as the cost of a McDonald's Big Mac Extra Value Meal, could pay for an insecticide-treated mosquito net that would protect children from malaria-ridden mosquitoes for five years.

Governments have citizens paying for these life-saving items, a practice called social marketing. However, these citizens have no money to spend. Professor Sachs calls this "one of the dumbest ideas I know. Really dumb because these people have no money. They can't afford to eat today." The land they use to farm has been depleted of its nutrients and can not bear the crops it once could, thus not allowing the citizens the ability to eat the crops, let alone sell the crops to make a profit. This poverty trap continues in regard to medications to help with tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS. Cheaper medications are given, but they do not help to heal the people. The difference in price between a drug that can work and the drug being given that does not is approximately only $1 per 3-day treatment. "Is life not worth a buck?" Professor Sachs challenged.

Story after story, photo after photo, Sachs informed the audience that for very little money, entire generations would be saved from extinction. He also pointed out that people who have nothing to live for, and have nothing left to lose, are the greatest security risk. Professor Sachs said, "We are the first generation in history that can actually see an end to extreme poverty on the planet. That really puts us in a fix since it can be done, and the word is out, we have to do it. Because if we don't do it, we will so diminish the value of life that we will put all of us, and our children, and their children at basic risk. Fortunately, the good news is don't be afraid. We can do this. It's not going to kill us. It's not going to cost us an arm and a leg. In fact, the horrendous truth is that we are only by neglect leaving millions to die every year. And the smallest, most modest of efforts by us could change the course of history and do more for peace and security than any amount of military spending will ever do in this country."

Each person was reminded of what it means to have no food. Professor Sachs asked this of a woman in Malawi, trying to feed her 14 family members, and the answer was, "Well, I stand at the mill of the village. And when the grain is milled, I can take the husks home. And I can cook them, so we are able to have one meal a day of gruel from the refuse of the milled grain...but today is Sunday and the mill is not open, so today we have no food at all." He said that the result of this is that the children will die as the immune system requires basal metabolism to be maintained in order to provide basic life processes. Calories and protein are needed in order to keep the body's immune system working. When there is none, the body can not fight off infection. "Because they are already so immuno-suppressed, they'll die."

He shared with the audience that due to the population tripling in Malawi, the land can not be rotated, so the nutrients normally found in the soil have been depleted, and when the rains fail, the entire crop is destroyed. The seed does not have anything to grow with. A solution, Professor Sachs suggested, is that a $40 bag of fertilizer (chemical or organic) could help the farms produce enough crops to feed their village, and for just another $20-$40, the farms could be set up to be self-sustaining based on the types of crops planted: food for the village and food for the soil. "These people don't want wealth, they want to survive," Professor Sachs said.

The struggle Professor Sachs is facing with the world's governments is that they are not providing enough financial assistance to help with these issues. "We issued an alert from the United Nations. $37 million to help 5 million hungry, in need, essentially starving people, in Southern Malawi ($7.40 per person). What was the response from the world? $12 million, and really not even -- that stretching it. The world doesn't hear because there's nothing, nothing so silent as the voice of the dying in our world. There's nothing heard less than the poorest of the poor. Nobody heard less, no sound heard less."

Professor Sachs' remarks throughout the lecture were just as Bono foreshadowed in his introduction, "He sees the faces through the spreadsheets. These people are not abstract to him: They're real. He's met them, he's working to save their lives. And I'll bet he sees them when he closes his eyes. If he didn't, he'd be all bookworm and no brimstone. And as you're about to see when this man talks from the lectern, he might well be preaching from the pulpit, or for that matter, singing at the top of his lungs at Madison Square Garden."

The clear, direct statements from Professor Sachs made this issue black-and-white. Bono is optimistic that Professor Sachs has the practical, science-based solutions, "Jeff has done more than anyone to show exactly what we need to do in terms of the critical path: the how, the when, the who, to make it a reality. He is a passionately practical man. His new book is a blueprint on how to get the job done, how to cut poverty in half by 2015, and how even to end extreme poverty altogether...to Jeff, it's a difficult but solvable equation. It's an adventure, not a burden, and if you're brave enough, he'll bring us along for the ride." The simplicity of the solutions presented through his presentation gave us all hope, just as he brought hope to those he and his wife, Sonia, visited in Malawi, we truly can see the end of poverty as it is known in Africa in the very near future. Now it is up to those who signed up for the ONE Campaign, and the other supporters of the cause to get the governments to provide the aid needed.

As an aside, Professor Sachs declared that Bono could win four Nobel Prizes. "I count four that you can win, actually. First, physics. Einstein had this idea that the universe curves. Bono has this idea that left and right come together and go right down the middle together. Second, I know he can win the Nobel Prize for economics -- no question. My top student definitely. Every finance minister in the world innocently invites him in. They think it's a little bit of a lark. He leaves them hungry. They know nothing compared to what this man knows. He teaches them, gets them oriented the right way. Sometimes after that they lose their job unfortunately. But the truth is this man not only tells it so beautifully, but also knows in detail from top to bottom what he's talking about. And that's the real trick of this: getting invited once to the summits, that a rock star can do. Getting invited at every hall of power all the time, that's what Bono has done. There's a third prize, obviously, a great Irish tradition, and that's the Nobel Prize for Literature because truly, he's Ireland's ambassador to the world but he's really the world's poet laureate. Because through music and spoken word, this man is such a genius at bringing emotion through language. Language to music. Language as prose as well. At that he is incomparable and that is why he has gripped the world. And fourth, is that little Nobel Peace Prize. That's the one we're counting on next week. So, I can't tell you how great of a man he is."

The Nobel Peace Prize went this year to the U.N. nuclear watchdog group International Atomic Energy Agency and its head, Mohamed El Baradei, for their efforts to limit the spread of atomic weapons.

For more information: Photos from the event: http://www.flickr.com/photos/atu2com/sets/1084409/ Malawi, Africa: http://www.africaguide.com/country/malawi/ Glucksman Ireland House: http://irelandhouse.fas.nyu.edu/page/home ONE Campaign: http://www.one.org Professor Jeffrey Sachs' bio: http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu/about/director/fullbio.html His book The End of Poverty: http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu/endofpoverty/



© @U2/Lawrence, 2005.