The moral challenge of reconciliation

August 1, 2003

From his sobering opening reference to the day just ended in Accra, Ghana – “a day with many acts of beauty, of mercy” but also full of death – to his concluding challenge, Jeffrey Sachs engaged his audience in a vision of hope, one that requires accepting responsibility for a whole world.

“Seven thousand African children died today of malaria, another 7,000 of AIDS. One thousand died of tuberculosis, 15,000 of diseases which are utterly, completely preventable and treatable,” said the professor of sustainable development, health policy and management at Columbia University. he was a speaker at "God’s Mission in a Global Perspective," a July 31 forum hosted by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.

“When we talk of the gap between rich and poor, of the extraordinary wealth we have in this country, we are talking of the coexistence of wealth beyond imagining and poverty that is so extreme that it kills millions every year.”

And it needn’t be so. We, the United States, he said, could assure that it wouldn’t be so with such very small sacrifice. “The greatest paradox for me, as someone who has tried to understand poverty, is how we can go day to day in such a world, when through our good fortunes, our good luck, our ingenuity, we’ve been able to develop a standard of living so vast, so sensitive that those problems and that suffering could readily not only be addressed, but eliminated.”

He called it the greatest paradox of his generation. “How can we not be rushing to put an end to this horrific and unnecessary suffering, when it could so easily be ended in our own time?”

One billion people, one-sixth of the world’s population, Sachs explained, lives in poverty so devastating that every day is a struggle simply to survive. These are people trapped in poverty, trapped in cycles that prevent production and thus revenue and thus improvement. “The more one looks at it, the more one knows the interconnected tragedy, people trapped not because there is no solution, but trapped because the world has looked the other way.”

There are very practical solutions, he said, “and none of it is rocket science. It takes people: doctors, nurses, laborers who pave roads, people who dig wells. Those are the people that society needs. And they can be empowered.”

Not only can this be done, said the special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on poverty elimination initiatives, “but the world, including our country, has committed to do it.” The Millennial Goals, accepted by 150 world leaders at an extraordinary assembly at the United Nations in September 2000, vowed to cut world poverty – the plight of the extremely poor – by half by the year 2015. “President Clinton signed on, representing all of us,” said Sachs.

The rich nations of the world agreed to commit 0.7 percent of their gross national product to this effort. The U.S. has not kept that promise, said Sachs. It gives 0.1 percent (one penny out of $10). “And Africa is getting 1 percent of that – one penny out of $100.”

He told how he despaired about the stinginess of the government, of the Bush administration’s unkept promises and reminded that if all the rich nations paid their share it would mean $175 billion a year. “Do you know what you could do with that?” he asked. “End extreme global poverty. End AIDS, tuberculosis. Provide fuel for hundreds of millions, pave roads, guarantee that every child could go through not just elementary school, but high school.”

The United States is so rich, so fortunate, he said, that it could end all that suffering and “we wouldn’t have to do anything more than what we have already promised.” In fact, he said, if the wealthiest 400 people in the United States, with their $69 billion in annual income, just gave back their recent tax cut of 10 percent, that $7 billion “could save several billion people.”

Sachs believes this is the moral challenge of this generation. And his audience, standing to applaud him, seemed to agree with his last words: “We can end extreme global poverty. The stakes are so high, the opportunities so vast. How can we not do this?”