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Extreme poverty can be conquered

By Jeffrey Sachs

The fight against extreme poverty can be won, but only if George W. Bush recognises that military might alone will not secure the world.

THE END of poverty is a choice, not a forecast. There are a billion people on earth fighting daily for their survival. The world has committed, in the Millennium Development Goals, to cut extreme poverty by half by 2015. By 2025, extreme poverty can be banished.

By dint of interest and calendar, the next step rests with London. Tony Blair has dramatically raised the stakes. Now he must deliver. The Blair Africa Commission is a masterful display of diagnosis and politics. Africa's leading development thinkers and Britain's political leaders are aligned on a sound diagnosis and course of action. Mr. Blair has promised that Africa and development aid will be at the core of this year's G8 summit, which he will host in Scotland in July. Africans are daring to hope that this time offered help is not just empty words.

The ways out of the poverty trap can be found. The financial costs of the needed development aid are utterly manageable, just 70pence per 100 (0.7 per cent) of the national incomes of the donor nations.

Yet will the rich countries follow through? While the U.K. has raised the banner of fighting poverty in Africa, the U.S. has armed only for its war against terror. George W. Bush never even mentions the Millennium Development Goals. The U.S. spends just 0.15 per cent of its national income on aid, while devoting nearly 5 per cent to the military. Is a superpower that devotes 30 times more in spending to the military than to development aid a reliable partner in the fight against extreme poverty?

The money, including the U.S. contribution, needs to be Mr. Blair's focus in the lead-up to the July summit, since the fight against extreme poverty cannot be won on rhetoric alone. The barriers to development in Africa are not in the mind, but in the soils, the mosquitoes, the vast distances over difficult terrain, the unsteady rainfall.

Africa faces three pressing and distinctive problems that were overcome in Asia 40 years ago. The first is growing enough food. Asia had its green revolution, Africa has not. The biggest difference is biophysical. Asia's breadbaskets are in the great river systems flowing from the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. Asia's green revolution was built on the combination of irrigation, fertilizer, and high-yield variety seeds.

African agriculture, by contrast, is overwhelmingly rain-fed, without the floodplains and monsoons to underpin large-scale irrigation. The African savannah, with its long dry seasons and irregular rainy seasons, is home to hundreds of millions of poor subsistence farmers and their families. Nor can these impoverished farm households afford fertilizers or improved seed varieties.

Yet modern science now points the way to a 21st-century African green revolution. Improved water management combined with proven methods of replenishing Africa's soil nutrients, and improved seeds adapted to African conditions, now make it possible for Africa to achieve the same agricultural breakthrough that Asia achieved two generations ago.

Powerful and practical solutions similarly exist for Africa's great second challenge, the control of killer diseases. Africa's children are dying of malaria, diarrhoea, respiratory infection, chronic under-nutrition, and the lack of neonatal care. With modern public health and medical practices, these children can be saved. And when they are saved, parents will choose to have fewer children, secure in the knowledge that they will survive. Reduced child mortality and slower population growth, surprisingly enough, go hand in hand.

Africa's third distinctive challenge is the lack of basic transport, power, and communications infrastructure. Africa's farm families need all-weather roads to get fertilizer into the villages and crops out to the market. Africa's villages need trucks to rush a dying child or mother in complicated labour to a district hospital. Africa's small businesses need mobile phones to get the latest market quote. The necessary investments are clear, and not particularly complex.

Ending poverty is a grand moral task, and a geopolitical imperative, but at the core, it is a relatively straightforward investment proposition. And the investment plans are actually on the table, or more accurately, on the shelves gathering dust, since Africa's leaders have been told at least until now that their ambitious investment plans cannot be funded.

The fight against extreme poverty can be won at the summit at Gleneagles (Scotland) later this year. Most importantly, Tony Blair needs to bring his friend George W. Bush back to reality, to an understanding that the U.S. military alone will never secure a world beset by hunger, disease, and deprivation. If the U.S. and a united Europe will honour their long-standing — and long-neglected — pledge of 0.7 per cent of GNP, then Africans and other impoverished people on the planet will roll up their sleeves and get to work saving themselves and their families, and ultimately helping to save all of the rest of us as well.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

(Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, New York.)

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