“The End of Poverty”

At breakfast this morning, I reached over for an open magazine left at the table by one of our guests, Elektra Gorski, visiting from Tokyo, where she is finishing her Rotary Peace Fellowship this summer. The (Time) magazine was open to an “exclusive book excerpt” of The End of Poverty by Jeffrey D. Sachs. The picture that covered two thirds of the double page showed Bihari (Bihar is one of the poorest states in India) women carrying away the contents of latrines in metal buckets on their heads.

For those of you who don’t know, Jeffrey Sachs is an economist who made his name turning around developing economies, starting with Bolivia in the mid ’80s, while a tenured professor at Harvard. His success in helping the Solidarity-led Polish government create a market economy propelled him to stardom in the post-Soviet era, then later to infamy when his program for Boris Yeltsin’s Russia failed to have the anticipated impact. He is now with Columbia University’s Earth Institute and is the director of the United Nation’s Millenium Project, whose Millenium Development Goals are, among other things, to reduce extreme poverty and hunger by half by 2015.

“This is a story about ending poverty in our time. It is not a forecast. I am not predicting what will happen, only explaining what can happen. Currently, more than 8 million people around the world die each year because they are too poor to stay alive…”

“Yet our generation, in the U.S. and abroad, can choose to end extreme poverty by the year 2025. To do it, we need to adopt a new method, which I call “clinical economics,” to underscore the similarities between good development economics and good clinical medicine… Development economics needs an overhaul in order to be much more like modern medicine, a profession of rigor, insight and practicality.”

I started to read the excerpt. It begins with a description of the conditions in a small village, Nthandire, in Malawi, and ends with a list of nine steps that we can take to reach the Millenium Development Goals.

… “Nearly half the 6 billion people in the world are poor.”… Sachs goes on to define the three levels of poverty classified by the World Bank: extreme (or absolute) poverty, moderate poverty and relative poverty. The World Bank estimates that there are 1.1 billion people living in extreme poverty who cannot meet their basic requirements for survival.

In July 2004, Sachs and his colleagues spent some time in a group of eight Kenyan villages known as the Sauri sublocation in the Siaya district of Nyanza province. The Earth Institute has received a grant from the Lenfest Foundation to “put some novel ideas to work in the Sauri.”

“African safari guides speak of the Big Five animals to watch for on the savannah. The world should speak of the Big Five development interventions that would spell the difference between life and death for the savannah’s people. Sauri’s Big Five are:

Boosting Agriculture With fertilizers, cover crops, irrigation and improved seeds, Sauri’s farmers could triple their food yields and quickly end chronic hunger. Grain could be protected in locally made storage bins using leaves from the improved fallow species tephrosia, which has insecticide properties.

Improving Basic Health A village clinic with one doctor and nurse for the 5,000 residents would provide free antimalarial bed nets, effective antimalarial medicines and treatments for HIV/AIDS opportunistic infections.

Investing in Education Meals for all the children at the primary school could improve the health of the kids, the quality of education and the attendance at school. Expanded vocational training for the students could teach them the skills of modern farming, computer literacy, basic infrastructure maintenance and carpentry. The village is ready and eager to be empowered by increased information and technical knowledge.

Bringing Power Electricity could be made available to the villages either via a power line or an off-grid diesel generator. The electricity would power lights and perhaps a computer for the school; pumps for safe well water; power for milling grain, refrigeration and other needs. The villagers emphasized that the students would like to study after sunset but cannot do so without electric lighting.

Providing Clean Water and Sanitation With enough water points and latrines for the safety of the entire village, women and children would save countless hours of toil each day fetching water. The water could be provided through a combination of protected springs, rainwater harvesting and other basic technologies.

The irony is that the cost of these services for Sauri’s 5,000 residents would be very low. My Earth Institute colleagues and I estimated that the combined cost of these improvements, even including the cost of treatment of AIDS, would total only $70 per person per year, or around $350,000 for all of Sauri. …

With a population of some 33 million people, of whom two-thirds are in rural areas, Kenya would need annual investments on the order of $1.5 billion for its Sauris, with donors filling most of that financing gap, since the national government is already stretched beyond its means. Instead, donor support for investment in rural Kenya is perhaps $100 million, or a mere one-fifteenth of what is needed. …

My blood began to boil. Why is Sachs still talking about bringing “first” world solutions to developing economies? Fertilizers and improved seeds, vocational training to teach “modern” farming techniques, computer training in areas with no electricity, bringing electricity through power lines or diesel generator… all at a “low” cost of $70 per person per year… only $1.5 billion for the rural development of Kenya.

Where are the sustainable solutions? Green manure and other natural (and cheaper, or free) fertilizers, going off the grid with solar instead of diesel, composting toilets, foot pumps for drawing well water… the truly appropriate technologies? Why promote the dependence on fertilizers, improved seeds, and pesticides that have driven thousands of farmers in South Asia into a cycle of debt and suicide? In countries where electric power generation cannot keep up with the demands even in cities, when will power lines reach the rural areas with steady supplies of electricity to power refrigerators? What are the “novel” ideas?

“From the world as a whole, the amount of aid per African per year is really very small, just $30 per sub-Saharan African in 2002. Of that modest amount, almost $5 was actually for consultants from the donor countries, more than $3 was for emergency aid, about $4 went for servicing Africa’s debts and $5 was for debt-relief operations. The rest, about $12, went to Africa. Since the “money down the drain” argument is heard most frequently in the U.S., it’s worth looking a the same calculations for U.S. aid alone. In 2002, the U.S. gave $3 per sub-Saharan African. Taking out the parts for U.S. consultants and technical cooperation, food and other emergency aid, administrative costs and debt relief, the aid per African came to the grand total of perhaps 6 cents.”

Given this reality, a reality that neither he, nor members of congress, nor administrators of the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund have been able to change for decades, where will we find the $1.5 billion for rural Kenya, let alone the 1.1 billion of the world’s absolute poor?

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