This month’s Esquire magazine is the annual “Genius” issue (with Bill Clinton as the coverboy, which might seem strange until you realize that the word “genius” is related to the words “genii” and “jinn,” which in mythology were often negative spiritual beings, “commonly believed to be responsible for diseases and for the manias of some lunatics”).
Speaking about the trouble with working through and for bureaucratic governments in his article “What I Did on My Summer Vacation: I Went to Africa,” (subscription required) Jeffrey Sachs, director of both the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the UN Millennium Project: “Officialdom the world over is pretty slow moving, pretty impractical, and pretty darn frustrating in many ways, so even when the proof of these concepts is clear, actually getting things done is not so easy.”
So when Sachs sees problems all over the world, he’s rightly frustrated by the governmental inability to deal with the issues. Through his hands-on experience, Sachs has learned to appreciate the necessary and decisive role private charity plays. He says with respect to the poverty, suffering, and death in developing countries,
It’s not very satisfactory to see this and not act. And so in the last couple of years I’ve started to talk about these problems with business leaders and philanthropists, and over and over again I’ve heard the same response: Don’t wait for the government. I’ll help you. So what kind of accidentally dawned on us was that we could just go ahead and get these concepts proven on the ground. And that’s what we are doing. And many philanthropists have come forward now and said, We’ll give you some backing; show us what you can do.
This is exactly the element that poverty advocate and U2 frontman Bono called for in a recent interview. “We need the marketing firepower,” he said. “We have the churches, the students, the rock stars, the movie stars, the cowboys. What we need now is corporate America.”
Sachs goes on to describe how the idea for Millennium Villages came about, through the interaction of field experts and donors: “…that’s how the Millennium Villages concept was born. The scientists said, Let’s move. The philanthropists said, Let’s move. A year ago we went and met with the community in Kenya and talked to people there about it. And they said, Let’s move!”
Sachs goes on to lay out the foundation for the UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), which emphasize both public and private sector engagement, but at over a 2:1 ratio of public over private. He writes of a meeting to find out what it would take to get developing countries out of poverty, “They said the public sector will do some and the private sector needs to do some, and that it should be about a seventy-thirty split. So that’s where the seventy cents came from. And that was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 1970.”
It’s unfortunate that the sensitivity that Sachs has at the beginning of the article to the unresponsiveness and corruption of government doesn’t lead him to primarily emphasize private rather than public aid. It’s appropriate to call governments to task for not living up to their pledges, the United States especially. But that finger-wagging shouldn’t take away from the “Let’s move, don’t wait for government” approach. That’s essentially my complaint with the church infatuation with the MDG’s…they tend to overemphasize the role of government and deemphasize personal and private giving.