End of Poverty

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time by Jeffrey D. Sachs [New York, Penguin Press, 2005] is a book as big in its scope as the earth itself. Despite the persistence of poverty in many countries, Sachs has plans, big plans to eliminate it, all bolstered by a sense of optimism based on the work he has done over the past 25 years.

He is a director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and taught many years at Harvard. He is also an advisor to Kofi Annan of the United Nations and a friend of George Soros and Bono, who wrote the foreword. So he is definitely not just another unrealistic idealist who's out of touch with the reality of the magnitude of the world's poverty.

His hope is summed up in his quote, "The key to ending poverty is to create a global network of connections that reach from impoverished communities to the very centers of world power and wealth and back again." Sachs says it is possible under the UN Millennium Project to decrease the worst poverty by the year 2015 and end all global poverty by 2025.

The population of the world right now is about 6.3 billion. Of these, 1.5 billion people are extremely poor. Others are moderately poor, so about 40% of humanity needs help. By our standards today, most of the world used to be poor. The Industrial Revolution of the past 200 years has resulted in greater good for many countries, but not all. Sachs thinks technology, properly used, is the key to prosperity, while realizing that some of it may exploit the poor.

His prime examples of suffering that could be remedied are the countries of Africa. We don't hear it on CNN, but every single day at least 10,000 Africans die of completely preventable diseases, mostly malaria and AIDS. I was interested in the description of Ethiopia's problems because about 50 years ago, Oklahoma State University had agricultural and other outreach projects there. Emperor Haile Selassie actually visited Stillwater once and stayed in the Student Union. Sachs reports that Ethiopia still needs major help, about $70 per person every year instead of the $14 it is getting, with half of the money to go for public health and half for infrastructure and farming.

The book is rich in history as well as present-day knowledge of all world economies. That most countries need help at one time or another is a lesson of the past. For example, many adjustments were needed after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Sachs says he tried for two years to get assistance for Russia without many results. He blames some of the people now in power in Washington, D.C., for the delays and failures. In Poland, billionaire George Soros was giving grants to eastern European countries in an effort to integrate western Europe back into the world economy. In 2004 Poland joined the European Union. Come to think of it, where would the United States be today if France hadn't helped us during the American Revolution?

All the way through, Sachs emphasizes the geography of nations and how it affects their economies. It's hard to be landlocked, mountainous and isolated and still be strong economically. Think of most of Latin America. On the other hand China is lucky to have a long coastline for shipping and some good oil production too. Sachs is also hopeful about the future of India.

Hope underlies much of what he says. Polio has almost been wiped out worldwide. In 1980 the World Health Organization declared the world "free of smallpox." Wider use of contraception has stabilized population growth in prosperous countries and obviously could help the poorer countries. It is true that good opportunities for women and an adequate family income decrease the number of children in a family to the benefit of everyone.

Money is the key. As I was finishing my reading of this book, someone on NPR was reporting that Congress had just passed the "defense" budget of $491 billion. With a tiny fraction of that kind of money -- $2 billion to $3 billion a year -- Sachs says the diseases that remain uncontrolled and cause "unnecessary suffering," could be completely eliminated. And just "modest financial help from the rich countries" would right now be a giant step toward ridding our world of poverty. As it is, in the United States we are spending about $15 billion a year on foreign aid.

Ending poverty is a moral challenge, and it is also a moral necessity that we support the efforts of the UN. A better world for everyone was and still is the goal of the UN. It should be the goal of the US as well.

Contact Alvena Bieri at 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater, OK 74074; or email

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