Jeffrey Sachs on Beating Global Poverty

The Colombia economist says it can be done with little investing.

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Economist Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University's current rock star-cum-academic, has mastered the art of being audacious in a pleasantly reasoned sort of way. In his new book, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, he posits that global poverty, plus a host of other ills, can be conquered for a cost that amounts to pocket change for rich-world nations. The price tag, either shamefully low or totally unrealistic, prompts the question, "If we can, why haven't we?" Excerpts of a chat with Sachs:

How do you pull a country out of poverty?
The trick is to think technologically. People are poor because they lack productivity. They lack productivity because they don't have the tools to become more productive. Those tools include the basic inputs to raise farm yields above subsistence levels. For urban centers, it means broadband, electricity, and working ports. My concern is for the places that need the tools and simply can't pay for them. They're trapped. Those places are where we should give targeted help.

How much would that really cost?
For less than 1 percent of annual income of the high-income countries—the U.S., Europe, Japan, and a few others—we could end poverty once and for all. It's enough to get the poorest countries onto a path of long-term development. By ridding the world of extreme poverty, we're doing ourselves a big favor in terms of our own long-term security. Of course, it goes without saying that most of us consider helping other people a good goal in and of itself if the price is right. And in this case, the price is right.

Why not just leave it to the free market?
Free-market forces are vital. But they are limited when you have people so poor that they are essentially isolated from markets. People that don't even grow enough food to bring to market, don't have electricity or access to roads, clinics, or schools, find themselves isolated from the world economy.

With First World economies struggling, will it be tougher to gain commitments to fight poverty?
Not really, because the amounts we're talking about are so small. To control malaria comprehensively in Africa, for example, would cost less than two days of Pentagon spending.

So how should we revamp U.S. policy?
Look at the swath of instability right now that stretches across Chad, Sudan, Somalia, up through the Arabian Peninsula to Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. That whole region is enmeshed in a real crisis of massive water scarcity, food scarcity, and population stress. If we take the initiative, we'd find that for a few billion dollars there'd be an incredible rally around us, as opposed to the hundreds of billions of dollars that just aren't getting us anywhere right now.

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  • Kirk Shinkle

    Kirk Shinkle is a senior editor for U.S. News Money and manages the Best Funds portal. Follow him on Twitter @KirkS or email him at kshinkle@usnews.com.