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Jeffrey Sachs - An Economist for All Seasons

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

Imagine you are Chotsoni, a young women living in an impoverished country. You awaken at 5am and walk two hours from your village to work in a garment sweatshop. Once there, you sit for 12 hours or more cutting and sewing fabric for clothes worn by people who live in richer countries. You are allowed a fleeting sustenance break. Your boss is a tyrannical task master. You may be forced to take birth control and comply with routine pregnancy tests, so the company won’t have to pay for maternity leave or medical benefits. After your shift, you walk for two hours back to your village, eat a meager meal, and collapse for the night.

The scenario is common in countries in Asia, the Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Still, Chotsoni is a rung higher on her country's economic development ladder than the rest of her native villagers who cannot meet their basic needs for survival. They are chronically hungry, unable to access healthcare, cannot afford education, lack rudimentary shelter, and do not have basic articles of clothing like shoes. At least Chotsoni can save a small sum from her meager pay, manage her own income, choose when and whom to marry, and use her savings to improve her life condition by going back to school.

Jeffrey Sachs notes the plight of women like Chotsoni in his book, The End of Poverty. Narrowly defining Sachs as an economist is akin to narrowly defining Winston Churchill as a politician. Sachs graduated summa cum laude from Harvard where he also received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in economics. A tenured Harvard professor by the age of 26, he taught economics there for 20 years. Sachs has advised heads of state, written 21 books, and has won numerous awards for his work in ending worldwide poverty. Sachs states that “the greatest tragedy of our time is that one-sixth of humanity is not even on the developmental ladder (toward ending poverty). They are trapped by disease, physical isolation, climate stress, environmental degradation, and by extreme poverty itself.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was drafted by representatives from all regions of the world more than 70 years ago. Article 25 of the UDHR states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or lack or livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” In places like Africa, where roughly ½ of the population is extremely poor, this standard of living appears to be a pipe dream.

One wonders how the extremely poor got that way. In The End of Poverty, Sachs explains that centuries ago worldwide poverty, low life expectancy, and episodes of famine were commonplace. However, certain countries, like Great Britain, had an advantage. The Industrial Revolution (c. 1760-1840) ushered in new forms of energy for mass production. Similar advantages include a tradition of free speech and open debate for new ideas in Parliament; dynamic scientific thinking (mostly imported from other countries); geographical advantages of an island economy who enjoyed a sea-based trade with all parts of Europe; a more benign disease environment; natural fertility of soil; and, vast stocks of coal. Additionally, contrived theories of racism and culturalism offered justification for brutal forms of exploitation of poorer countries. Technological advances such as railroads, the telegraph, and electricity also spurred prosperity.

Sachs proposes the following measures to alleviate extreme poverty worldwide, possibly in our lifetime:

· Improve agricultural inputs with fertilizer, green manures, small-scale irrigation, and protect grains in locally made storage bins. Train a community-based agricultural extension worker who would understand the basics of soil chemistry and basic techniques of agroforestry, seed selection, and water management. A community-based engineer trained in the operation and maintenance of diesel generators, electrical wiring, pumps, and road grading would also be beneficial.

· Eight million people die every year because they are too poor to stay alive. Invest in basic health by distributing antimalarial bed nets and effective antimalarial medicines. Provide treatment for HIV/AIDS. Utilize skilled birth attendants to give sexual and reproductive health services. Train a literate community health worker to prescribe antimalarial medicines, give immunizations, and monitor anti-AIDS drugs.

· Establish schools for children, ensuring they have enough food to eat. Institute vocational training for older students to teach modern farming, computer literacy, and infrastructure maintenance.

· Make electricity available and utilize it for lights, pumps for safe well water, power for food processing, and refrigeration. A village truck could be used to haul fertilizers, taking produce to market, or villagers to the hospital. Make available one or more shared mobile phones to aid communication. Install water points and latrines for safe drinking and sanitation throughout the village.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused worldwide dysphoria as we crowdsource ideas for the best way to handle this economic health crisis. Sachs suggestions for alleviating poverty are outstanding ones, but tone deaf leadership promising immediate economic recovery does not support his cause. In the U.S. alone, 20.5 million jobs were lost during the past three months and most are not coming back. A more dire situation exists in the world's poorest countries where food insecurity has become commonplace. Sachs states that the economy is in “free fall” and that the continued spread of the virus will block any meaningful rapid recovery (Sachs, "We're Already in a Great Depression, 2020). The good news is that, in the past, we have scaled up in the battle against poverty. For example, we have fought an excellent fight in terms of eradicating diseases like smallpox and polio, lessening malarias grip in certain parts of the world, and dramatically reducing fertility rates with modern contraception. Historically, we have made meaningful gains in healing the planet and, if we plan methodically and work hard enough, we can – albeit slowly – heal again.

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