Debt Relief, Global Poverty and Larry Summers
t was not unusual for me to be in my West Wing office on a Sunday afternoon in the last year of the Clinton administration. Nor was it unusual to have powerful people calling to lobby me on policy issues. It was unusual, however, to have Bobby Shriver call to tell me that a rock legend—Bono—wanted to come in and meet with me that day, one on one. We had met before, but not alone. Pretty cool, I thought.
After Bono wandered in—oversized sunglasses and all—it didn’t take long for me to realize that like many top Japanese officials who had asked to see me in my office, Bono was not really there to lobby me, but to ask me to lobby the Secretary of the Treasury. Bono said he appreciated how much the President, Larry Summers, myself and others had pushed the cause of debt relief for the world’s poorest nations. Yet, he asked, wouldn’t it be great if the United States could make another grand gesture at the World Bank/IMF annual meetings that week? He felt like the President would do more, if only that something more had Summers’ blessing. I agreed, but reminded Bono that Larry had already done so much lobbying the Congress and pushing the G-8. He had to keep his credibility to keep having such a big impact.
Inspired by the rock star visit, however, I did pick up the phone and call Larry’s right-hand man on the issue—Undersecretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner—one of the true heroes of debt relief for poor countries. I asked Tim where Larry’s head was on the idea of us announcing something more at the World Bank/IMF meeting. Tim, notoriously brilliant and tight-lipped, just said that Larry wanted to do as much as anyone and that he was weighing the issue. While almost all economic decisions were made as a team under the President’s National Economic Council process, an international financial decision like this required significant deference to the Secretary of the Treasury—particularly one who was already championing the issue.
On the morning of the President’s speech Larry called me. He said while he was the last person to want to promote last-minute decision-making, he had come to the view that it would be financially defensible and morally compelling for the United States to offer 100 percent debt relief on its own loans to the world’s poorest nations. He wanted to know, was it too late? After quick calls to get consensus from Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Jack Law and OMB Deputy Sylvia Mathews ’87, Chief of Staff John Podesta told us if we could meet the President at his current event, we could make the pitch to him on the ride over to the World Bank/IMF meeting. The President accepted Larry’s idea in a heartbeat and wrote the new section into the speech with his own hand. The next day, thousands rallied in European capitals, demanding that their countries follow the lead of the United States. In the end, most did.
While I can’t say that I have dozens of stories involving Larry, rock stars and last-minute pitches in the presidential limousine, there are indeed scores of less flashy but equally telling stories about the enormous and inspired effort Larry Summers made to push the United States government to both play a leadership role and ultimately to meet its own financial commitments to debt relief for the world’s poorest nations. Larry wasn’t just there for the press conferences and the meetings with the President; he was there in the trenches. Rather than put himself on a Secretary of the Treasury pedestal, he was willing to meet constantly with not only members of Congress, but also their staff and the representatives of scores of religious and international children’s groups. Once in the late fall of 1999, when virtually everyone thought that funding for debt relief had no chance, Larry went up to the Hill himself and lobbied vigorously into the wee hours of the morning to turn a devastating loss into a partial win that no one expected.
As the fight for debt relief intensified, so did Larry’s passion. While some of us used to tease Larry about speaking about debt relief with too much dry financial language, by the time debt relief passed, few could match Larry’s ability to translate what debt relief meant in terms of children who would get health care, food and education. Even Bono was moved by what he called Larry’s “lyrics.” And while many of us are proud of our efforts, and while all of us would give the overall credit to the grassroots, multi-faith effort inspired by the Jubilee 2000 movement, if you had to pick one individual in the United States to be MVP for the passage of debt relief, that person would have to be former Secretary of the Treasury Summers.
Larry’s commitment to addressing global poverty did not start or end with debt relief. As Secretary of the Treasury, Larry devised a tax cut designed to provide a viable financial incentive for companies to develop and market vaccines for AIDS and other infectious diseases. In the end we could not overcome the resistance of the Chair of the Ways and Means Committee, but Larry’s extreme persistence in fighting for it became an administration legend. Indeed, our Chief of Staff began to only half-jokingly suggest that Summers had to be kept away from any last-minute negotiating table for fear he would give up everything to get the vaccines tax credit passed. Around the world, Larry’s passion sent a clear message: AIDS must be a critical focus of not only top health ministers, but financial ministers as well. Today, the vaccines tax initiative is at on the agenda in several major nations, with no small thanks to Larry.
Today, one of my post-White House jobs is being Director of the Universal Education Forum at the Brookings Institution, a project that focuses on achieving universal education in the world’s poorest nations by 2015. On this issue—as with AIDS and infectious diseases—Larry was one of the early messengers of the view that such previously considered social issues must now become the focus of those concerned with larger economic growth policies. As Chief Economist of the World Bank nearly a decade ago— in a speech that is still quoted today—Larry gave one of the first wake-up calls to the economic world that investing in the education of women was one of the best economic decisions the world could make.
Now if this testimonial to Larry’s commitment to fighting global poverty leads one to believe that Larry is ready to jump on every bandwagon or support any compassionate-sounding idea, they will be sorely disappointed. Larry combines a soft heart with a hard head. Larry never stopped reminding any of us that a lack of rigor—a willingness to tolerate waste and even corruption—was not consistent with compassionate aims. Those who eschew rigorous analysis and high standards in devising policies to fight global poverty ultimately let down the children they are trying to help.
Certainly, Larry’s list of achievements from his eight years in the Clinton administration is a long one. And his academic work could one day win him the Nobel Prize. I could have written about either. But if you want to talk not only about Larry Summers the scholar or Larry Summers the policy wonk, but Larry Summers the person, there is little that says as much as the fact that when he had his moment at the top of the nation’s economic policy hierarchy, he put the fight to alleviate global poverty at the top of his agenda.
Gene Sperling is currently the Director of the Universal Education Forum at the Brookings Institution. He served as the Director of the National Economic Council under President Clinton.