Sunday, April 03, 2005

[Global Poverty] Economist's heart and head guide mission to help end poverty

By Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Nobody in the Oak Park High School class of 1972 would be surprised to hear that Jeffrey Sachs -- the class valedictorian, the Harvard-bound student council president -- is today a prominent economist named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

His is a story of tapped potential and ambitions realized -- the logical outcome of outsize brains and ability combined with a family heritage of intellectual striving and emotional support.

Even so, it wows me.

And it does, not because an achiever didn't quit. (As his high school friend, I saved for the ages a postcard he sent of the White House, jauntily inscribed "Home at last.") But because today, Columbia University professor Jeffrey D. Sachs is staking his reputation as an expert on international economies -- and doing so for a cause equally out of fashion in the American city, suburb and academy. He's crusading to end poverty and needless death from starvation and curable disease in Africa.

His prescription to do so is a Time cover story (March 14, 2005) and the subject of his unexpectedly engaging new book, "The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time."

It's unexpectedly engaging because its thesis -- that developed nations can help wipe out suffering -- is at once informed and optimistic.

The economist who helped implement Poland's and Russia's switch to capitalism has enabled his career -- as professor, consultant to foreign leaders -- to evolve in unpredictable ways.

At 50, he recognizes that markets are only tools for mankind. In Africa, he was shocked by the extent of suffering and by his increasing awareness that so much of the poverty, disease and death are unnecessary. He could not, cannot turn away.

"These are not inert and helpless masses of humanity," he insists. "These are people who have the knowledge, the awareness of their situation ... they're ready to take actions to help themselves and they need the helping hand to accomplish that."

This message is sinking in at an uneasy American moment. But, he's discovered, people do want to give in direct and specific ways.

"I am resigned to this," he says. "When you hear the same thing a thousand times -- 'I want to help but I want my money to go to the village,' at some point, you have to listen."

He and a coterie of other influential people -- former President Bill Clinton among them -- are creating a way to channel dollars directly to African villagers.

While the theme -- that foreign aid can transform Third World economies -- has been his refrain for 20 years, his passion for spurring change in Africa is turning him into a grassroots operative.

Jeffrey Sachs was, in high school, the student who turned in a 40-page paper when the teacher asked for five.

Now, though, the macroeconomist is going micro -- working from the ground up, with soil scientists and agronomists, to change the world, one mosquito net at a time. Or one prime minister at a time.

You really can't ask more from the guy who always planned to fulfill his potential.