That’s What She Said

No, I am not talking about TV catchphrases, from The Office or elsewhere.

I had the good fortune this morning to appear on The Takeway (talking about financial illiteracy) beside Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. She was speaking about surging food prices around the world and the very real threat of famine.

Her entire segment is well worth a listen. The piece that caught my ear was her readiness to acknowledge that, in much of Africa, the root problem is bad government and bad agricultural policy. She also acknowledged rising demand from India and China, especially for resource-intensive meat. It was good to hear someone so well-versed in the problem speak so sensibly (if worriedly) about a problem that too often turns sensible people so emotional that they lose sense of reason.

But it was something President Robinson said after the program that I’ll truly remember. I asked her if, say, a well-regarded development economist from, say, Harvard or M.I.T. were to issue a paper on some important aspect of food supply or famine (like some of these, perhaps): would the folks in Robinson’s circle pay attention?

She smiled kindly as she said “I’m afraid not.” Which only further reinforced my belief that at the very least this is one person who truly does tell the truth.

when is common sense real sense, when is it not?

famine, disease, war- all these problems that we humans seem unable to solve. Yet, we can send men to the moon. Who likes death and distruction. Much more fun to explore. Or are we on the road to it? I like to cite a friend on this matter. He noticed how people were so easily apt to voice their opinions about personal matters of concern to them (as if there were a simple solution), yet when it came to other seemingly scientific matters they remained skeptical.


As an econ grad student I appreciate her honesty, surely I won't waste my thesis researching such a topic now.

Mike DC

I have to respectfully disagree with posts 4 and 5. The characterization of Mary Robinson and the Elders group in general as being a "politician" is in opposition to the reality of the situation. Mary Robinson's work with the Elders (and work well before the groups formation) has been quite void of politics. They tackle serious issues with level-headed and more often than not, economically correct strategies that are not always politically feasible. The entire point is to remove politics from the issue and get down to the nuts and bolts solutions. That's been her approach for a while now.

I think the point she was making is that another academic paper on why people are starving in Africa is not adding any value to the current discussion. There is a wealth of information already written about the economics of famine, from Amartya Sen, on down (and he continues to be entirely correct). We don't need another academic paper, we need the politicians, like Mbeki to come down hard and fast on countries like Zimbabwe.

Please- lets not be confused here, there are plenty of politicians who are causing these famines, Mary Robinson is not one of them.


Conor - Ireland

As a regular poster on the Freakonomics blog it's a nice surprise for see someone mentioned who I've had the pleasure of meeting. I met Mary Robinson during her time as President of Ireland, I was only 10 or 11 years old (c. 1994) and I was accompanying my Mother to work that day (school was out for some reason?). After speaking to my Mother, President Robinson took the time to actually speak to me, asked me what year (grade) I was in and what I wanted to be when I 'grew up'.

Later that day I heard her speak about the challenges facing Ireland's economy (remember this was 1994 - unemployment was in the high teens percentage-wise). Her speech ignited an interest in Economics in me that has never been whetted and I begin my PhD work later this year. I owe her a lot... maybe I should write to her and tell her that?

Anyways, my point is, she was definitely NOT being patronising, she is a kind, wise, and warm-hearted woman, and commonly regarded as the finest President Ireland has ever had.

PS, Stephen, did you notice she nods her head while speaking? She earned the nickname 'Noddy' while in office :-)


Tilemahos Efthimiadis

The debate as to whether scientists or politicians should be in charge dates back to ancient Greece. Although politicians are now in charge, in Europe we often see university professors as members of parliament and/or ministers. Perhaps this is the ultimate compromise.

Recently the European Union (EU) conducted a survey to see if "science" is taken into account by the EU politicians' decision making process and found that it is not. The authors comited to conducting a sequential report with specific recommendations to bridge the gap between scientists and politicians.

After all, if you are spending billions for research shouldn't you pay a little attention?


Common sense #12 -- sending a man to the moon is a high-status, high visibility enterprise. Making sure that working-class toddlers get free immunizations is not.

science freak

Dear Shuls;

You missed my point or perhaps you got it, but don't know it yet. There is a certain matter of a grain of salt wisdom of which is missing from our understanding of science that needs to be cleared up. Once it is (as it has been and needs to be made public), we all then continue to work on whatever aspect of science we wish to pursue. I did not mean to imply a hierarchy of appropriate scientific concerns. But I do admit that as far as theory/practice- there is a point when our scientific interests converge--human survival. And living on another planet may just (one day) make it possible. So john doe- I completely agree and hope soon that such networking activity will expand even further.


I'm curious about that last bit as well - surely you're not saying that people like Esther Duflo and Chris Udry aren't concerned with reality? Is there anything in economics closer to the real world than a field experiment?

Sandi Mays

#4 - Julian - right on!

Did she really say "I'm afraid not?" Don't confuse "kindly" with being patronized.


#12...Yes, famine, disease, and war are global dilemmas we haven't found a way to combat (although war arguably has a few positive effects.) But the argument that our endeavors like the space program detract attention from the negative aspects of our society must be taken with a grain of salt.

While solving the problems of today must be a priority for world leaders, progress remains our hope for future generations.

As for the idea that President Robinson is selfishly focusing on her own agenda and ignoring science... foolish. As everyone who has posted before this has commented, there is a plethora of academic documentation on the subject of Africa's economic and political situation that President Robinson’s inner circle has certainly studied closely.


If your paper explained how people in 'her circles' may benefit financially, they would probably listen.

Inflating Irishman

I am an Irishman by birth and can assure you the former president and family friend Mrs Robinson was not being patronizing (spelt with an s in Europe). I am very glad that you got to meet such an eminent Irish figure. She is held in extremely high regard having championed human rights causes all around the world. The position of president in Ireland unlike in America is a mostly decorative position but can be used to great effect to speak on behalf of many causes. Especially her post presidency work was outstanding in the human rights field, not content to fit into the Irish rich list culture Mrs Robinson worked and is still working tirelessly to give a voice to many great and worthy causes. I think it is true that her circle would not read the papers but it should be taken as given that all the advisors below her would most definitely be up to date on current research.

All the best


Journalist: "Do you ever listen to people who have studied these issues in depth and know what they're talking about?"

Politician: "No, of course not."

Journalist: "Cool."

Apologies if I'm misinterpreting your final words -- I realize that you (and she) are only saying that it's reality, hopefully not that it's a good thing. But it's pretty clear why we have so many problems if people refuse to even consider the solutions.


"She also acknowledged rising demand ... for resource-intensive meat."

THAT's what she said.


Mike DC (#10), that's how I interpreted her remarks as well. The world does lack for academic papers proposing solutions. It lacks leaders with the courage and political will to implement them.

john doe

@ Mike (10) and Rick (14)

University Professors do not always know what is economically feasible. They know what SHOULD work but theory and practicality do not always meet. There is not enough networking between Academics and professionals to find both an economically feasible and a theoretically feasible solution to world hunger and sprawl.


What she said is very true indeed. Doesn't it take a few years for academic research to make its presence felt in the real world???


She smiled kindly as she said “I’m afraid not.”

That's what she said.