04.20.11

Madonna's Academic Guru

With Madge under fire over the failings of her Raising Malawi charity, one of the most important figures in economic development comes to her defense. Sort of.

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs has been called "probably the most important economist in the world," by the New York Times. Now head of Columbia University's Earth Institute, Sachs helped implement financial reforms in Bolivia and Eastern Europe before turning his focus to economic development in the poorest nations of Africa. He has also worked at Harvard and the World Health Organization, been special adviser to U.N. Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, and had a private audience with Pope John Paul II. It turns out he was also an important friend and adviser to Madonna and her star-crossed charity Raising Malawi.

Sachs travelled to Malawi with the pop star in April 2010 to attend the ceremonial laying of the first brick at the Raising Malawi Academy for Girls. As it turns out, it was also the last brick: three months later Madonna's group stopped sending money to the project; within eight months the school had been formally abandoned.

Prior to the public collapse of the girls’ academy project, Sachs—who helped launch Bono and Angelina Jolie's aid campaigns in Africa—had been a vocal supporter of Madonna's efforts. The singer reached out to Sachs before the January 2006 founding of Raising Malawi, after she read his book on economic development The End of Poverty. Madonna took Sachs out to lunch and invited him to one of her concerts. According to an August 2006 article in Time magazine,  Madonna also pledged $1.5 million to Millennium Promise, Sachs' charity that that grew out of his 2002 United Nations economic development report. With a goal to "end poverty in one community" by "improving the health, agricultural productivity, and education" it targeted 14 “Millennium Villages” across Africa. Madonna’s donation was earmarked for the village of Gumulira, situated outside Malawi's capital of Lilongwe. Sachs praised Madonna's commitment to global philanthropy, saying the singer had “shown for the first time a real and continued knowledge and commitment” to aiding Malawi.

But despite the fact that Raising Malawi raised millions over the next few years—including $2.9 million at a Gucci-sponsored fundraiser on the north lawn of the United Nations that Sachs co-chaired in February 2008 – some or all of the $1.5 million pledged to Millennium Promise was paid by the Los Angeles-based Jewish mysticism group Kabbalah Centre, Madonna’s spiritual home and official partner in Raising Malawi.

According to Mark Fabiani, the Centre's lawyer and spokesman, the Centre paid the pledge in installments beginning in 2006; the first two $300,000 payments came from the Kabbalah Centre and its offshoot Spirituality For Kids (since renamed Success For Kids). But even after Raising Malawi incorporated as a separate 501(c)3 tax entity and showed payments to Millennium on its tax returns, the donations were made “using funds received from KCI,” according to Fabiani.

Raising Malawi's 2008 IRS filing lists a $600,000 donation to Millennium Promise. Yet Sachs' organization says only $300,000 was received that year.

Curiously, Raising Malawi's 2008 IRS filing lists a $600,000 donation to Millennium Promise. Yet the communications director of Sachs' organization, Erin Trowbridge, says only $300,000 was received that year. Raising Malawi representative Trevor Neilson told The Daily Beast that they reported the $600,000 figure "instead of $300K in 2008 and $300K in 2009" on the IRS filing, and said that they were "in the process" of issuing the fifth "missed" installment which was paid shortly after The Daily Beast's inquiries about these donations. As for Fabiani’s claim that these installments were paid by the Kabbalah Centre, Neilson says, "these would be Raising Malawi funds that were earmarked in a KCI account."

The Kabbalah Centre, which is a registered non-profit religious organization, is now a focus of a federal probe, which may eventually answer some of the questions raised about its intermingling of funds with Madonna’s charities, including the donations made to Millennium Promise.

When asked by The Daily Beast in a recent phone interview if he had "any regrets" about his involvement with Raising Malawi, Sachs paused so long he had to be asked if he was still there and offered no immediate answer. In response to a follow up email, Trowbridge issued the statement that "Professor Sachs was and is appreciative of Madonna's leadership to support education and poverty-alleviation in Malawi.”

Barry Shifrin studies journalism at the City University of New York and provides research assistance to Wayne Barrett at the Nation Institute.