Ever wonder why much of the world is chronically sick and hungry while the rest of us slurp $2 lattes? In "The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities...

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“The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time”
by Jeffrey D Sachs, foreword by Bono
Penguin Press, 368 pp., $27.95

Ever wonder why much of the world is chronically sick and hungry while the rest of us slurp $2 lattes? In “The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time,” renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs explains, offers solutions to end extreme poverty by 2025 and, amazingly, leaves you feeling hopeful rather than guilty.

“His voice is louder than any electric guitar, heavier than heavy metal,” writes U2’s rock-star-humanitarian Bono in the book’s foreword. “His passion is operatic … a wildness to the rhetoric but a rigor to the logic.”

Now 50 and director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Sachs was a Harvard wonder boy, tenured at 28. At 30, as a government consultant in La Paz, he stopped Bolivia’s hyperinflation almost overnight. That and other (more controversial) macroeconomic romps through Poland, India, China and Russia read more like armchair travelogue than textbook, though Sachs includes enough theory and graphs to satisfy economics jocks.

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But the book’s heart, and Sachs’ own, is about easing suffering in the world’s urban slums and starving villages.

First, Sachs defines extreme poverty. He is not talking about Pioneer Square panhandlers but rather the 20,000 people who die needlessly every day (mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia) because they lack food, clean water and basic medicine.

Next, the economist offers startling historic perspective: Until the late 1700s, almost the whole planet was that poor.

Then, the Industrial Revolution triggered two centuries of technological progress and economic growth — but not everywhere. Today’s phenomenal gap between richest and poorest isn’t because of corruption and exploitation, Sachs says, although both factors have certainly contributed. Fundamentally, it’s because Western countries got a head start with the steam engine, which led to mass production, better agriculture, the Enlightenment, increased trade and 150 years of economic development.

The good news? Once a country is on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, it can ascend. To illustrate, Sachs introduces us to female garment workers in Bangladesh, a data transcriber in India, a savvy cellphone couple in China. He shows how each of these countries got a toehold, then climbed. But in a Malawi mud hut, we also meet a grandmother caring for 15 children orphaned by AIDS. Malawi, like much of Africa, never even made it up to the bottom rung.

What happened? What to do?

Sachs uses “clinical economics,” a methodology borrowed from his pediatrician wife. When a child has fever, doctors take a history, do a physical and test for infection before treating. Sachs says economists should likewise consider myriad factors: geopolitics, climate, arable land, ethnography, public health, demographic trends, gender relations, trade barriers, access to roads, waterways, international trade routes and so on.

Africa’s problem, Sachs’ differential diagnosis concludes, is that much of it is landlocked and isolated, with little basic infrastructure or access to roads. Plus, in Africa’s climate, crops wither and disease thrives.

Sachs’ prescription? Surprise! — more money to decently governed countries. Funds would go for basic nutrition, sanitation, cooking fuel, paved roads, medicine, primary school, bed nets to guard against malaria mosquitoes, and training for local medics and agricultural extension workers. The goal: To boost the world’s 1.1 billion extremely poor onto the global economy’s bottom rung.

Price tag? $135 billion to $195 billion a year for the next decade, considerably less than the .7 percent of national income already pledged in 2002 by the rich-world’s 22 donor countries. (U.S. foreign aid is now less than .2 percent of gross national product, or 2 cents per $10 of income.)

The weak link in Sachs’ plan is administration. The economist calls for the United Nations secretary-general to personally oversee the grand plan, with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund playing lead roles. Sachs directed the UN Millennium Project (which set development goals for the world’s poorest countries) for Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whom he holds in highest regard. But Annan’s second and final term ends in December 2006. As for the World Bank and IMF, Sachs harshly criticizes their earlier bungled attempts at African development without sufficiently explaining why to trust those institutions now.

And what about the rest of us? Sachs looks to the world’s wealthiest nations and richest individuals (even richer because of recent tax breaks) to pay the poverty tab.

Why wait for inspiration to strike bureaucracies and billionaire golfers? Small-town Rotary Clubs have nearly eradicated polio worldwide. As the Ethiopian proverb goes, “If spiders unite, they can tie down a lion.” One of Sachs’ many talents is connecting macroeconomics with ordinary minds. Now that he’s revved us up, he ought to give us a way to help.

Paula Bock is a staff writer for the Seattle Times’ Pacific Magazine: pbock@seattletimes.com