More than 20,000 people perished yesterday due to extreme poverty. Furthermore, 20,000 died the day before and yet another 20,000 will die tomorrow. Seldom do such statistics appear in the news and hardly ever does one draw attention to such calamities without being declared a sensationalist. However, on Friday afternoon in a packed Call Auditorium in Kennedy Hall, Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the UN Millennium Project and Earth Institute at Columbia University, did just that.
“This struggle against extreme poverty is the struggle of our times, analogous to the struggle to end slavery, to end colonialism, and for civil rights. This is the challenge of the times and it’s not going to be solved by the stroke of a pen, but by a mass global plan,” Sachs said.
Indeed, while most people are familiar with the concept of poverty, few know what extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa is like. Because conditions are infrequently reported, it takes someone with the prominence of Sachs to get the message across the divide.
“Jeff Sachs is the most globally visible developmental economist today. I certainly know of no other academic who has been able to attract a rock star such as Bono to pen the forward to his most recent book,” said Prof. Christopher B. Barrett, applied economics and management referring to Sach’s The End of Poverty, which was published in 2005.
According to Barrett, “The poor, especially the urban slum dwellers and rural Africans, are caught in a poverty trap – that their poverty in itself is the primary cause of their inability to achieve sustainable economic growth.”
“All of the world got ahead of Malthus except sub-Saharan Africa,” Sachs said in reference to the British economist Thomas Malthus who argued that populations tend to increase faster than their food supply, with inevitably adverse results, unless the increase in population is checked by moral restraints or by war, famine or disease.
Sub-Saharan Africa is scourged with a Pandora’s box of diseases, but the one that takes the heaviest toll is malaria. “A bad mosquito bite – and your child dies. You get to the clinic and they’re out of quinine – and your child dies,” Sachs said.
Insecticide treated nets which cost $5.50 can reduce mortality and morbidity rates by half, but the majority of Africans do not sleep under such nets. Why? According to Sachs, it’s not a matter of carelessness, but rather affordability.
“In 2006 the United States gave three dollars per sub-Saharan African. Taking out the part for U.S. consultants, administrative costs, and debt relief, the aid per person came down to six cents,” Barrett quoted from Sachs’s book.
Sachs considers foreign aid not to be welfare, but to be an investment. “We need to mobilize investment on the macro scale. The solution is not going to come through the leading capitals. Our governments really are dysfunctional,” he said.
His solution was micro-aid on a mass scale. Alongside the UN Millennium Project, Sachs is mobilizing private investment to implement “Millennium Villages” in which the UN would work provide aid to one village at a time.
Of course there are problems ahead. In cases such as Zimbabwe, which is controlled by Robert Mugabe, aid may never reach the locals. In such cases, Sachs does not provide a solution. “I don’t believe regime change American style is such a hot idea,” Sachs said to the approval of the audience.
“Cornell students should watch the news, look at what’s happening not only at the Cornell campus but at other places of the world,” said Alisa Mo ’06, president of Cornell Health International.
Uncharacteristic of the typical dry and didactic lecture, Sachs’s eloquent message resonated with his listeners, appealing to both reason and emotion.
“Poverty can be ended. And it’s a matter of our decision to do so even more than George Bush’s decision to do so,” Sachs said, again to the applause of the audience. “This is something we can do – our generation can do,” he said.