Paths to Peace Through Compassion, Cooperation and Sustainable Development

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

Will humankind be able to end the scourge of extreme poverty in the coming decades? Economist Jeffrey D. Sachs is convinced we will.

Sauri Millennium Village, Kenya [© Millennium Promise]

There is no "one" person who bends history; we are all going to have to do this job. The good news is that we can do it. We do not have to wait for the politicians; we are lucky enough to be living in an age where we have the capacities, technologies and tools to do absolutely wonderful things as individuals and as a global community. The world today is interconnected in absolutely fundamental ways. Our connections are becoming increasingly immediate, and the possibility of a truly global community exists now more than ever before.

We have within our hands, within our time, within this generation, the realistic ability to end extreme poverty. This shocks a lot of people. It seems utopian and naive. But the fact is, if we actually spent a little effort on it, the problem would turn out to be vastly easier to solve than we might imagine. The hardest part of all of this is not the costs, it is not the unimaginable difficulties of certain places, and it is not the harrowing challenges of economics or the environment or finance. The main challenge is really our ability to focus on what is within our reach right now.

I want to begin with one of my favorite remarks of US President John F. Kennedy. He said, "First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable--that mankind is doomed--that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are man-made--therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings."

Today, people believe that solutions to other problems are impossible--that poverty cannot be solved, that climate change and issues of the environment cannot be addressed. As John F. Kennedy said, "That is a dangerous, defeatist belief." He is right--it leads to the conclusion that we are doomed. None of these problems are beyond a solution if we overcome the fear, which is the greatest obstacle of all, and understand the nature of the challenges, the power of the technologies that we have and the practicality of our solutions. What is this problem of absolute poverty? How can it exist in the 21st century, in a time of incredible capacity to produce, to grow food and to control diseases? And how can it be that we are not yet addressing this issue?

It is not a matter of blaming the poor, because many of the poor that I have seen are hard workers, focused on the future and very loving and caring of their children. They simply lack the most basic means because, for example, their local clinic is 20 kilometers away or their water source is not even a well and is just an open spring that is dangerous to drink from. They cannot afford the five dollars that it would cost for an insecticide-treated bed net to protect them from malaria for five years.

Probably the hardest thing for us to understand is what it means to have nothing. Nearly one billion people are in that state on the planet, where you cannot escape without a helping hand. When you have nothing, no bank is going to lend you the money, and you cannot save your way out of poverty. You need every ounce of your energy, your income and your food supply merely to survive. You cannot pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you are barefoot. What our leadership refuses to see are the necessary steps to move from a state of such powerless existence to a place where people can save and invest for their future. They are such small steps.

I did not understand what it meant to have nothing for a long time. I worked in many poor places, but I had not worked in the poorest places and could not imagine what they were like.

I was overwhelmed when I began to work in tropical Africa in the mid-1990s, even after having worked in India, China, Bolivia and many other poor places. Nowhere had I seen the truly extreme nature of disease. I had never experienced so much death around me before. It took me a few years to understand we were doing nothing to help because we put up a wall of confusion around ourselves.

The installation of water pumps in the Tiby Millennium Village in Mali means villagers no longer have to walk kilometers to fetch water [© Millennium Promise]

It took a long time to realize this fact because there were so many speeches, so much professional concern and so many declarations regarding all our efforts and everything we were doing. I only fully understood in 2000, when I was flying to Durban, South Africa, for the International AIDS Conference. I was reading a World Bank paper which did not mention antiretroviral medicine. In a four-page scientific paper the words "antiretroviral medicine" were not even mentioned because donors did not want to acknowledge the medicine, as if it was some secret. What the article did say was that the World Bank would help finance bereavement training. It would help enterprises restructure. It would advise on how to have human resource programs in the midst of a high-disease burden. At that point, I questioned a lot of colleagues, and it turned out that the Western world was spending $80 million, roughly three dollars per infected person per year, to address this issue up to 2001.

The problems of AIDS, malaria or food insecurity are not the great mysteries of the universe. They are the mysteries of our inattention.

For a long time, I hoped that someone would sign a check and we would get programs going. I have realized that it is not going to happen that way. I have realized that it is going to happen when we understand the stakes, the opportunities, and when we make direct connections.

Let me focus on malaria, a mosquito-borne, tropical disease, because it is the perfect example of a scourge we can end. Africa's malaria incidence is by far the worst in the world. This is because of the kind of mosquito they have, the high temperatures and the ample mosquito breeding sites.

One hundred years ago, even ten years ago, we did not have the tools to combat malaria. Now, thanks to modern processes, for example making bed nets that protect against mosquitoes, help is here. The nets are made in an ingenious way, which includes a mosquitocide. If you protect everybody with these nets, you can drive the malaria burden to zero.

The nets cost five dollars and last five years. The estimated cost of providing sufficient bed nets for people in the malaria region in Africa is $1.5 billion.

Every minute, the United States spends $1.2 million on the Pentagon. Every day, we spend $1.7 billion on the military. It seems to me that 22 hours of the Pentagon budget would fix this problem. Our security would be raised profoundly in terms of goodwill, in terms of understanding and in terms of human connection.

It is clear that the health problems of the poor have solutions. Issues for agricultural productivity also have simple solutions.

A while back an agronomist took me out to the fields and said, "See the yellow on that maize stalk. It is an indication of nitrogen deficiency because this farmer is too poor to buy a bag of fertilizer."

If you give a 50-kilogram bag of fertilizer to a farmer with a half-hectare farm, he can triple his production. This can happen within one season, not with years of training and a generation of change, but just with a bag of fertilizer.

A volunteer in Bonsaaso Millennium Village, Ghana, explains how to hang a bed net [© Millennium Promise]

Twenty years ago, the World Bank said that the problem of African agriculture is government intervention. They advised that the government get out and let the markets take over. They were wrong. The market is not designed to solve the problems of people who have no money. A few years ago, my colleagues and I worked with Kofi Annan, then UN secretary-general, and we decided that we needed action.

We started in western Kenya, in a place called Sauri Village. People had walked many kilometers to come, and we sat in the sweltering school hall. I asked them about malaria. Everybody had it. I asked them, "How many of you have bed nets?" There were two or three hands raised out of the 250 or so people in the room.

I have heard so many incorrect rumors such as, "Maybe they don't like bed nets," or "Maybe they are too hot and they bother people." I asked this roomful of people: "How many of you know what bed nets are?" I thought that maybe they didn't even know. Every hand went up, of course. I asked, "How many of you would like bed nets?" Every hand stayed up and people got very excited.

A woman in the front row stood up and, through the interpreter, said, "But, Mister, we can't afford bed nets."

They know what bed nets are. They would love bed nets. They just can't afford them.

We talked about fertilizer the same way, and they knew exactly what the situation was. This wasn't about changing some deep cultural habit, it was just about poverty.

There is nothing that can't be done in a straightforward fashion, in partnership, to address these problems. We launched a program called Millennium Villages, of which Sauri is one. These are villages committed to meeting the Millennium Development Goals, the goals to fight hunger, poverty and disease. The Millennium Villages now cover about 600,000 people across Africa.

Governments, NGOs and companies are all partnering on the Millennium Villages Project. The chairperson of the first company I talked to, Sumitomo, which makes bed nets, immediately said, "I will provide bed nets for every sleeping site in all of the Millennium Villages for free." It didn't take 20 years to see the results. It took a few days to cover all the sleeping sites.

There are solutions. They are within our hands. We have no time to lose; our safety and security depend on it.

We are the generation in history that can end extreme poverty. The year 2025 is our rendezvous date. By the year 2025, we will end extreme poverty.

I have no doubt that by doing so, we can make the most important connection of all, across every racial divide, religious divide, linguistic divide, class divide and any other divide you can think of. Human-to-human contact is so powerful. It is essential and the path to peace on the planet.

This text is a shortened version of an address given at the SGI-USA New York Culture Center in May 2012, as part of SGI-USA's Culture of Peace Distinguished Speakers Series.

Director of The Earth Institute and Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Jeffrey D. Sachs is widely considered to be the leading international economic adviser of his generation. For more than 20 years, he has been in the forefront of efforts to tackle the challenges of economic development, poverty alleviation and enlightened globalization. His most recent book is The Age of Sustainable Development.