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Economist Jeffrey Sachs Envisions World Without Poverty

Economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University's Earth Institute believes poverty can be eliminated by the year 2025. His prescription for ending extreme want was published as a book - The End of Poverty - last year.

Sachs says he is a practical man. He's interested in what works, not only in terms of ending poverty and creating wealth, but also in enabling everyone in the world's increasingly global and interdependent marketplace to have a fair shot at economic success.

"In the broadest sense, economics is about the material conditions of life," he says. "Do people have enough to eat? Do they have access to health care? Can they get safe drinking water? Do they have a livelihood that can support them, support their families and allow them to meet their aspirations? So, economics covers a lot of our daily lives."

Sachs says he first began thinking about these issues during a high school tour of Russia, Ukraine and several Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War, and that backpacking through India as a college student during the early 1970s sharpened his concerns. He remembers being appalled by the poverty and suffering he saw on the subcontinent, but resisted the conventional wisdom that it was simply India's "fate" to remain economically undeveloped.

"And I thought to myself as a student, 'I wonder whether there is any way out of this, and could I - and could economics - contribute to some of that? What is it that makes a place work? What makes for a good society? Why is it that some places in the world achieve a great material well-being, and other places in the world struggle for survival on a daily basis?' [These issues] became more and more of a puzzle to me."

Sachs received his Ph.D in economics from Harvard University, and taught there until 2002, when he assumed the directorship of Columbia University's Earth Institute, an interdisciplinary academic center dedicated to solving a wide range of global problems.

Sachs has always tried to apply to economics the same rigorous scientific methods practiced in fields such as biology and medicine. During his travels in more than 100 countries, he has made a focused study of comparative economics. He believes assessing what works in other countries -- in Sweden's universal health care system, for example -- can provide key lessons for U.S. policy makers.

"Of course,we also have a lot to teach other countries," Sachs says. "When I helped to advise the Polish government on how to get out of its historic dead end of the centrally owned and centrally planned economy, it was the lessons of the United States and Europe about how a market economy functions that provided the crucial base for the changes that Poland got underway and that successfully pulled Poland out of a downward spiral and onto a path to join the European Union. So the examples run in many directions."

A milestone in Sachs' career occurred in the mid-1980s, when the Bolivian government invited him to help bring its wildly hyper-inflated economy under control. Among other strategies, Sachs advised the government to stop printing money, and helped it negotiate a cancellation of most of its foreign debt.

"The idea that you would actually be involved, [with] sleeves rolled up, hands on, working out the monetary policy to end the hyperinflation was absolutely amazing!" he beams. "To take a bold action, and then have it work before your eyes, well, that's fun, and quite satisfying, and in line with my hopes that this is what economics ought to be about."

Today many African nations are buckling under their own foreign debt obligations, and Sachs believes lender countries and institutions are beginning to recognize that their interests and Africa's interests are closely bound.

"And so what I've tried to do as an economist is to explain how our well-being depends, in our interconnected world, on the well-being of others," he says. "The basic idea that we are all in this together, that we share a common fate, all this is part of understanding the real shared circumstances on a very crowded planet that we inhabit now."

Sachs expands on those themes in his book, The End of Poverty," which is considered by many to be a bold new prescription for eliminating the scourge of global poverty by the year 2025.

"What I propose in the book is a very practical path to accomplish this," he says, "in which the rich and the poor countries work together to help impoverished farmers in Africa to grow more food, to help Africa and other disease ridden regions to fight specific diseases which afflict them, to help build the infrastructure of transport and communications which can empower currently impoverished communities to be more productive and to participate in the world economy."

A daunting goal? Not for Jeffrey Sachs. "We've got the tools," he says. "Let's get to work and see results!"

See "Jeffrey Sachs and the Millenium Villages" at the Center for Global Development OnLine