America's Best Leaders: Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University Economist

An academic who looks for real-world ways to beat global poverty.

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Jeffrey Sachs

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As a macroeconomic adviser, Jeffrey Sachs played a starring role in the market-oriented transitions of such coun tries as Bolivia, Russia, and Poland. But Sachs may leave a deeper mark on the monumental problem of reducing "extreme poverty." He advises United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the world body's Millennium Development Goals and directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He spoke recently with U.S. News's Thomas Omestad. Excerpts:

What I've learned on the ground is that poor people face very specific, very practical problems that have very specific and very practical solutions that don't reach these communities because they're too poor to undertake them on their own. As a macroeconomist, I tended to somehow be above the details for a long time until I started working in villages and understanding what was really happening. What I found was, not surprisingly, a lot of disease, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, schools not close by, and, especially, incredibly low productivity in farming.

Economists don't necessarily know about some things. How do you fight malaria? How do you grow more food? Working together with communities, the progress can be remarkably rapid. Farmers can triple or quadruple their food output. They can get malaria under control. They can get their children in school and learning better with a midday meal. Traditional economics is basically the view that if something is going wrong, fix the markets. But even before you get to functioning markets, people need a baseline of survival. They can't do it on their own.

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