Fifteen Minutes: Harvard's Sachs Goes Pro Bono

Jeffrey Sachs '76 might have earned his Ph.D. in economics at age 26, and sure, he was named a full Harvard professor only three years later. Yes, he did go on to become what The New York Times called "probably the world's most important economist." But Sachs, currently the director of the Center for International Development, only achieved true eminence (as measured by appearances in Rolling Stone and meetings with the Pope) by hanging out with a rock star. In this case, "hanging out" means collaborating on a push for Third World debt relief. The rock star in question is U2 lead singer Bono.

Entitled Jubilee 2000, the debt relief campaign is a massive international program that aims to convince creditors, such as the U.S., to cancel the huge debts which developing nations accumulated over the past 30 years. Sachs has been a proponent of such a program since 1985, but Bono is certainly Jubilee's most famous spokesman. More than the latest chic cause for New York socialites, this group maintains fervid academic clout--especially after Sachs joined last year. "When Jubilee 2000 came to the fore they asked me if I could help," he said. "Bono and I spent a lot of time in the past year working on this."

Sachs and the man in wraparound shades coordinate a variety of public events and conferences designed to raise consciousness of debt relief. Bono met with a huge variety of economic heavyweights, from former Fed chairman Paul Volcker and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to President Clinton. "He's extremely sophisticated about this issue," Sachs said. "He's met all the major stakeholders in policy." The rocker's huge commitment to the issue has drawn the attention of writers intrigued by the idea of a man wearing huge boots and leather pants discussing fiscal policy with the most powerful men in the Western world. Sachs' involvement is usually relegated to a side note, but perhaps that is better than no note at all for a man in his line of work.

For his part, the Galen L. Stone Professor of International Trade has given a great number of speeches on the topic of debt relief, written guest columns in the Times and served on a debt-relief congressional advisory commission. This commission recently recommended cancellation of all outstanding Third World debts. Clinton, too, has endorsed a full write-off. Jubilee 2000 even draws on support from God himself, or at least His surrogate on earth, Pope John Paul II. Bono and Sachs were part of the Jubilee team that met with his Holiness last October, at which the pontiff was labeled "funky" by the eloquent Bono.

Sachs' work has drawn him favorable comparisons with such economic luminaries as John Maynard Keynes, and perhaps the Irish rocker is jealous. But then again, probably not. "It has been amazing to watch Bono's versatility with the substance of this issue," Sachs said. "The other side was sitting next to him in a van with hundreds of screaming fans running behind him, because frankly that doesn't happen much in macroeconomics."

--B. D. Mathis-Lilley