Don’t send Sachs to the World Bank

By Felix Salmon
March 2, 2012

In 2002, Jeff Sachs took the top job at one of the most ambitious university departments in the world: the Earth Institute at Columbia University. And he’s done that job very well, judging by the main metric that universities care about. When he re-upped his contract last April, the press release gushed about all the multi-million-dollar donations that the Earth Institute has received, including $20 million from the Gates Foundation and $28 million from the Lenfest Foundation to endow climate change research.

Now, however, Sachs wants to leave: he’s got his eye on a job where the sums of money involved make those numbers seem positively puny.

My quest to help end poverty has taken me to more than 125 countries, from mega-city capitals to mountaintop villages, from rain forest settlements to nomadic desert camps. Now I hope it will take me to 18th and Pennsylvania, to the presidency of the World Bank. I am eager for this challenge.

To a certain extent, Sachs’s job application reads almost like self-parody: “the president of the World Bank spends a lot of time travelling in first class to poor countries. I have been doing that for years, so I’m obviously highly qualified for the job.”

And of course Sachs has one crucial thing going for him: he’s American. The next World Bank president will, sadly, be an American, a fact which takes a lot of highly-qualified potential candidates, including many former heads of state, out of the running.

But even if the next president of the World Bank is an American, we can still do better than Sachs. The reason that Sachs shouldn’t get the job is basically the same as the reason why Larry Summers shouldn’t get the job: he’s an arrogant economist who nearly always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. The presidency of the World Bank is a diplomatic position: if you want to do it effectively, you need to be able to wrangle not only the vast staff working for you, but also the various executive directors who are your superiors and who have a tendency to want to micromanage your decisions. Insofar as Jim Wolfensohn, say, was a successful World Bank president, he was successful because he was a smooth-talking investment banker who was expert at schmoozing important people.

Sachs, by contrast, is angry; he’s one of life’s natural campaigners. That’s great when you’re hanging out with Bono, or even Bill Gates. But it’s less likely to get you very far when you’re trying to persuade the Nigerian president to revolutionize his domestic policy.

Which is one reason why Hillary Clinton would be much better than Sachs for the job: she knows the international diplomatic back-channels, while also knowing how to tactically assert power when necessary.

Besides, Sachs has two big strikes against him. One is the “shock therapy” he administered to Eastern European countries, especially Russia, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a complete disaster, and Sachs has never accepted his share of the blame for it. He still thinks, as far as I know, that his ideas were good ones, and were just poorly implemented. But they weren’t good ideas, not least because the political institutions in the countries he was dealing with were obviously not up to the task of effectively and honestly implementing his drastic prescriptions.

More recently, Sachs has been investing an enormous amount of personal and financial capital in his Millennium Villages project — a well-intentioned project which attempts to demonstrate the power of investment to turn around poor villages, but which virtually nobody outside the project thinks is capable of demonstrating any such thing. Before even thinking about nominating Sachs to the World Bank, Obama should take a straw poll of Bank employees. Most of them have pretty strong opinions about the Millennium Villages, and it would be very useful to know if he would be entering an institution whose employees in large part consider him to be much better at public relations than at wrestling with messy empirical truths.

Sachs’s worldview, boiled down, is that development is easy, we know how to do it, and that given enough money, it’s relatively trivial to spend that money in an effective way to reduce poverty around the world. When World Bank presidents come in with that attitude, the results can be wasteful at best and downright counterproductive at worst. I’m not, in general, a fan of politicians. But in this case, we’d be better off with a smart politician in charge of the Bank — someone able to build consensus and approach tough problems with modesty — than we would with an arrogant economist.

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