In the midst of the worst economic crisis in a generation, Jeffrey Sachs insists that we need to focus on wiping out the most extreme poverty on the planet. Not just for the sake of the poor, but also for our own.
There’s still ample money around to markedly improve the living standards for the world’s “bottom billion,” says the author of Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet.Sachs,director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, argues that a relatively small-scale investment by the West in practical items—antimalaria nets, cook stoves, cellphones—would raise the poorest people above the threshold of subsistence.
His attempts to link poverty reduction and rural development to long-term environmental sustainability have gained the Harvard-educated economist almost rock-star cachet. When not meeting with economic ministers in Brazil or addressing financiers in London, he can often be found surveying the quality of life in an isolated African hamlet with Bono or Angelina Jolie.
What’s in all of this for the “have” nations? Increased global security, Sachs insists. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, he has come to believe that the best way to create security for the wealthiest countries is to markedly improve the lives of the poorest in the developing world. (Read an excerpt from Common Wealth.)
Q. What is the simplest way to pull a nation out of poverty?
A. The key for places in the world stuck in extreme poverty is basic investment in the core needs of those communities. Basically, these are farm communities, so agriculture is very high on the list. So are health, education, roads, power, water and sanitation, Internet connectivity and basic business development, such as micro-finance. I emphasize a practical approach to help the poorest of the poor address their basic needs and raise their productivity so that they can then make their way out of poverty over the long term.
Q. Isn’t this way too expensive for advanced nations to handle today?
A. What I’m proposing is not a massive wealth transfer; I’m not saying we need to equalize incomes. The things I’m proposing would leave poor communities very poor, but would put them in a position where they are beyond the survival threshold so that the children are surviving and going to school, so that the parents are productive enough to be earning an income, not simply living at subsistence.
Q. What’s the bottom line?
A. When you make the calculations, the costs to the rich world are less than 1 percent of its income. That’s the bargain of the planet. Not only would less than 1 percent of our income save millions of lives every year, help children to be healthy, properly fed and properly schooled, it would also create a much safer planet and one that would be much safer for our own children and their children.
Q. The challenge seems pretty overwhelming.
A. For the past decade I’ve been working with teams of specialists across all the major sectors of people’s lives. Working with doctors and public health specialists on what it would take to control disease, to enable mothers to have safe childbirth, to properly nourish children. Working with agronomists on what it would take to ensure food security and income for the farmers. I’ve been working with civil engineers on what it would take to build roads and to have power, electricity and cook stoves in these communities. I’ve been working with the phone giant Ericsson on what it would take to bring mobile telephones to all the remote rural areas and then to have the right kind of applications on their phones that could really empower these communities.