Sachs on the Fight Against World Hunger

Jeffrey Sachs talks with The Daily Beast about world hunger, the development models he hopes to see included when President Obama meets with African leaders Tuesday—and why everyone should quit criticizing Madonna for her Malawi adoptions.

Jay Directo, AFP / Getty Images

Green Giants: Conversations with Global Environmental Leaders

Jeffrey Sachs talks with The Daily Beast about world hunger, the development models he hopes to see included when President Obama meets with African leaders Tuesday—and why everyone should quit criticizing Madonna for her Malawi adoptions.

Xtra Insight: Read more of Sachs’ talk with The Daily Beast about how Obama must act on the environment.

In 2005 you traveled to Kenya with Angelina Jolie to visit the first Millennium Village, a program developed by The Earth Institute and the U.N. aimed at ending extreme poverty and promoting sustainable development. What have you learned, and have you been able to expand the number of villages, as you originally hoped?

In 2005 we started with 5,000 people in this project, and we are now at half a million. And there is also interest from the Nigerian government to raise the coverage by an additional 20 million—not exactly the same project, but the idea of integrated rural development, which focuses on five areas: agricultural, health, education, infrastructure, and business development. The core hypothesis—that there are very practical, low-cost things to do that can make a huge difference in the well-being of poor people—has been validated. In Kenya we’ve had vastly improved harvests resulting in a decisive decline in hunger and childhood stunting, a decisive improvement of nutritional status, school attendance, and performance, and a huge decline—90 percent—in malaria.

“People are unaware of just how generous, bold, and consistent Madonna has been. I see it with my own eyes. And what people don’t know is that she’s saved the lives of these kids.”

Via insecticide-treated mosquito nets?

It’s a combination of the nets and medicines being available and community health workers who can give them or get sick people to the clinic, and so on. Everything we’re doing is systems-based, as you rarely have one magic bullet. But we’re seeing a tremendous amount of progress. I believe that we’re going to have a significant uptake of the project in Haiti, New Guinea, and Laos. And I’m discussing it with the Obama administration because I think the basic template of community-based, integrated development using cutting-edge technologies—whether it’s better seed varieties or mobile phones and the services that they can provide—is a better approach to the kind of poverty and instability that we’re facing in so many places in the world.

Tony Blair and Nicholas Stern: Now Is the Best Chance for a Climate DealAnd what response are you getting from the administration?

A lot of interest. I’m on my way to Haiti in a couple of weeks, and if we do this project, I’m counting on the support of the U.S. government, which has announced a significant increase in support for Haiti’s development. This would be one way to use those resources in a very effective and transparent way.

Your initial target for the U.N. Millennium Project was very ambitious: cutting in half the number of people who live on less than a dollar a day by 2015? Can you meet that?

If you take it on a global scale, yes, but it’s a little bit shady because you get to count the reductions of poverty in India and China. But in Africa, it’s a difficult situation because it’s only in the last two or three years that African economic growth rates have started to break the 5 or 6 percent in which poverty would start to come down. It’s hard to know exactly how much the economic crisis will put the skids on, but it looks like it’s going to be a significant adverse effect. At the same time there has been a lack of follow-through on aid commitments made by the rich countries, and the global recession makes it even tougher.

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On top of all that, the frequency of climate shocks seems to be rising. I don’t think we could prove it systematically yet, but I bet that’s the case. We’re seeing a lot more droughts and flooding—ironically, in the same places that are getting hit by drought—because you get fewer but more intense episodes of rainfall. So we’ve definitely gone backward in the last year with the number of people in hunger rising.

Does support from the likes of Bono, Angelina, Madonna, and George Soros help to increase awareness on the part of the public and private sector?

Yes. There’s no question that they’ve turned the public’s attention to these issues. There has been an incredible explosion of interest and dynamism. There’s just not a major company in the world that isn’t doing something now, and I think they’ve not only realized they have technologies that can add to the solutions, but they also have customers that care about these things. The political process is the biggest laggard, and what all of this public attention does is get an increased understanding, more demonstration projects, and on-the-ground local successes. But the ultimate scaling-up requires political leadership, and that’s the missing component right now.

While we’re on the subject of Madonna: She’s been criticized in the press for choosing international over domestic adoption, and the motives behind her efforts in Africa have been questioned. You’ve worked with her, so what’s your take?

I happen to know quite well there is nothing to question about her motives. She’s been completely committed to these issues in Africa. She works around the clock and puts a vast amount of her money specifically into the fight against poverty in Malawi. People are unaware of just how generous, bold, and consistent Madonna has been. I see it with my own eyes. And what people don’t know is that she’s saved the lives of these kids. Her son [David] was at risk of death from a typical but killer respiratory infection on the eve of the adoption, and it was the process of adoption that saved him. So all of this outside punditry on whether the child would be better off or not? The child would be dead.

Are you working on another book?

I try to find time somewhere between 4 and 5 in the morning to contemplate writing about the nature of capitalism, what this crisis needs, and what the future holds. So that’s the next book. It’s not the right way to put it, but it’s been so absurd that every week has come a new crisis on top of all the other ones. I’ve just never seen anything close to the wave of new challenges piling on one after the other. It’s a very, very crowded agenda, and thank God we’ve made a transition from Bush to President Obama because that’s our biggest hope—that we can get some coherence and leadership into these issues.

So how will you frame all of this?

I’m trying to talk about how to understand capitalism, not as some simple-minded free-market nirvana, which it obviously isn’t. And not as some utter disaster that has to be fought. But rather as a set of institutions and systems that can actually combine the energy of a market economy with the smarts not to drive the world over the cliff—environmentally or through insecurity and massive inequalities.

That sounds compelling. I look forward to reading it.

And I look forward to writing it, if I could find the time.

Matthew Dakotah is conducting a series of interviews with global environmental leaders for The Daily Beast. An award-winning journalist, he has directed 14 magazine and Web site redesigns and worked at Hearst and Emap. As vice president, group editorial director of Homes & Lifestyles Publishing, he initiated coverage of sustainable development. Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewdakotah.