‘Do something wonderful’
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‘Do something wonderful’

Jeffrey Sachs has been speaking for years about what he calls "the lowest-hanging fruit on the planet": the opportunity "to do something wonderful" — and at a relatively low cost.

"Malaria is a massive killer," said the director of the Earth Institute, who for more than ‘0 years has been advising on economic development and the alleviation of poverty. "But," he added, "it is also largely preventable, and 100 percent treatable."

Sachs, a leading proponent of combining economic development with environmental sustainability, pointed out that bed nets cost only $5 apiece and last for five years. Increasing their use would "reduce transmission rates dramatically." In addition, he said, highly effective medication costs only $1 per course of treatment.

Named among the 100 most influential leaders in the world by Time Magazine in ‘004 and ‘005, and the ‘005 recipient of the Sargent Shriver Award for Equal Justice, Sachs is the author of The New York Times bestseller "The End of Poverty."

"Almost by definition," he told the Standard in a telephone interview, "malaria hits the poorest of the poor." People with more resources can "get it under control," with access to bed nets, transportation, and clinics. "If we put our minds to it, we can get [these items] to them," he said. By neglecting this huge problem, we only "worsen the situation in Africa," perpetuating the poverty trap.

Sachs cited a speech in Johannesburg last week by World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz calling malaria "an enormous drain on public health resources."

"We’re losing a million people a year to a disease that is preventable, and it’s a terrible burden on people who don’t die from it," said Wolfowitz, a former senior Bush administration official.

Addressing the contentious issue of DDT, a pesticide banned when it was found to cause environmental damage when used to spray open fields, Sachs said the chemical is, in fact, "another part of the solution," citing studies showing that "spraying the inside walls of places where mosquitoes bite" has proved effective in controlling the disease. Reluctance to use DDT has been "an inadvertent side effect," he said, noting that findings about DDT’s impact when sprayed on a wide area have been "misapplied."

"It was a mistake not to distinguish" between the two uses of the pesticide, he said. Still, he added, bed nets are cheaper to provide, since DDT requires teams of trained people to apply it and has a higher unit cost.

Sachs, who holds a doctorate from Harvard University and served as director of the U.N. Millenium Project from ’00’ to ‘006, explained that the venture was created to develop a concrete international action plan to reverse the "grinding poverty, hunger, and disease affecting billions of people throughout the world by the year ‘015."

"Our generation has a unique opportunity," he said. "We have the resources and technology to end extreme poverty. This raises the stakes. The more the suffering goes on, the more we’re openly turning our backs on those who need us."

Noting that "tikkun olam is one of my favorite concepts," one that was inculcated early in his life "by family, tradition, and community," he suggested that affluent Jewish communities need to recast their tzedakah, "bringing support to the poorest of the poor throughout the world and enabling communities to lift themselves out of chronic hunger and poverty" — the highest form of charity, according to Maimonides.

Sachs pointed out that when Maimonides developed his views on charity, "everyone was poor, yet even then, at the edge of survival, there was an absolute moral commitment to helping the poor." Today, he said, charity poses no risk for the well-to-do, and "two cups of coffee pays for a bed net."

"Many people don’t realize [the extent] of the problem," he said, or they think everything’s already being done. But "if we turn our backs on the world’s poor, we too will suffer the brutal fate of shortsightedness and neglect. If we act, as we can and should, we can help usher in an era of widening prosperity and peace."

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