Paths to Peace

Economist Jeffrey D. Sachs on using compassion, cooperation and sustainable development to end extreme poverty.

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. The world today is interconnected in fundamental ways. Our connections are becoming more immediate, and the possibility of a truly global community exists now more than ever before.

Let me give you an example. At Columbia University, I was thrilled to put into motion an idea that I have dreamt about for a while: the global classroom. I gave the introductory lecture for a semester-long class taught by faculty from about 16 universities around the world . . . There were rooms of students all around the world looking at one another and learning in one common space. It is exciting and wonderful, and I think it should make us sit back and think about the possibilities of all that we really can accomplish right now.

The homework assignments in this global class have students from Columbia working with students in Ethiopia, and the students in Malaysia working with the students in Kyoto to discuss climate change. They work as groups and have to understand one another. They see one another around the table, and they brainstorm together. This, I think, is the whole spirit of our time. We have the capacity to do things that were once unimaginable and that are so important.

We also have the capacity to destroy as never before. This is the paradox of technology. We have learned throughout history that technology can do wonderful things, yet it can be equally unimaginably destructive. In the end, it comes back to humanity and choice, and it comes back to values and commitment.

Today, we have the capacity to use technology to address and end a scourge—that of extreme poverty. 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 main challenge is really our ability to focus on what is within our reach right now.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy said: “Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible . . . 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 . . . ”

What I love about this speech is how he goes on at length to talk only to the Americans about our own views. He says, “As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom, but we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements in science and space and economic and industrial growth and culture and in acts of courage.” He goes on to speak with great praise of the Russian people, and he repeatedly calls on us to think about how we can set a path for others to find peace with us.

The outcome of this particular speech was absolutely startling. Nikita Khrushchev heard it and immediately declared that it was the finest speech of any American leader in modern times. He called the American envoy Averell Harriman and said, “I want to make peace with this man.” Six weeks later, the first partial nuclear test ban treaty was signed. Six weeks after the speech. That is what can come from reaching out to find connection with others. It is a demonstration of what is possible and practical when we overcome fear and search for the true human connection.

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.” 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.

The problems of extreme poverty.

The problems of extreme poverty are the core difficulties of people who lack the basic tools and means of staying alive. 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 12 miles away or their water source is not even a well and is just an open spring that is dangerous to drink from.

Probably the hardest thing for us to understand is what it means to have nothing. Nearly 1 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 merely to survive. You cannot pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you are barefoot.

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 problems of AIDS, malaria or food insecurity are not the great mysteries of the universe. They are the mysteries of our inattention. The inability to solve this problem does not rest with our technologies. It lies squarely with us and with our understanding.

On the ground— Malaria Consortium is piloting a project to assess the effectiveness of various strategies to prevent the mosquito-borne tropical disease in Kampong Cham province, Cambodia. Participants collect sample larvae and pupae in the experimental "guppy fish bank" through to reduce mosquito larvae. Photo: Malariaconsortium.org.
On the ground— Malaria Consortium is piloting a project to assess the effectiveness of various strategies to prevent the mosquito-borne tropical disease in Kampong Cham province, Cambodia. Participants collect sample larvae and pupae in the experimental “guppy fish bank” through to reduce mosquito larvae. Photo: Malariaconsortium.org.

A scourge we can end.

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 mosquitoborne 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 10 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 day, the Pentagon spends $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.

Simple solutions.

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 100-pound bag of fertilizer to a farmer with a one-acre 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 few years ago, my colleagues and I worked with Kofi Annan, then United Nations Secretary-General, and we decided that we needed action.

We started in western Kenya, in a place called Sauri Village. People had walked many miles 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 rumors like, “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?” Every hand went up. 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 to address these problems. We launched a program called Millennium Villages, of which Sauri is one. These are villages committed to meeting the United Nations Millennium Development 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 with 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. 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 Speaker Series.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is a world-renowned professor of economics, leader in sustainable development, senior U.N. advisor, best-selling author and syndicated columnist whose monthly newspaper columns appear in more than 100 countries. He has twice been named among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential world leaders. His books include The Age of Sustainable Development, To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace and The End of Poverty.