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Poverty Times #4

The end of poverty

It is still midmorning in Malawi when we arrive at a small village, Nthandire, about an hour outside of Lilongwe, the capital. We have come over dirt roads, passing women and children walking barefoot with water jugs, wood for fuel and other bundles. This midmorning temperature is sweltering. In this subsistence maizegrowing region of a poor, landlocked country in southern Africa, families cling to life on an unforgiving terrain, this year has been a lot more difficult than usual because the rains have failed. The crops are withering in the fields that we pass. If the village were filled with able-bodied men, who could have built rainwatercollecting unites on rooftops and in the fields, the situation would not be so dire. But as we arrive in the village, we see no able-bodied young men at all. In fact, older women and dozens of children greet us, but there is not a young man or woman in sight. Where, we ask, are the workers? Out in the fields? The aid worker who has led us to the village shakes his head sadly and says no. Nearly all are dead, the village has been devastated by Aids.
By Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and head of the UN Millennium Project

The presence of death in Nthandire has been overwhelming in recent years. The grandmothers whom we meet are guardians for their orphaned grandchildren.

The margin of survival is extraordinarily narrow; sometimes it closes entirely: One woman we meet in front of her mud hut has 15 orphaned grandchildren. Her small farm plot, a little more than an acre in all, would be too small to feed her family even if the rains had been plentiful. The soil nutrients have been depleted so significantly in this part of Malawi that crop yields reach only about a half-ton per acre, about one-third of normal. This year, because of the drought, she will get almost nothing: She reaches into her apron and pulls out a handful of semirotten, bug-infested millet, which will be the basis for the gruel she will prepare for the meal that evening. It will be the one meal the children have that day.

I ask her about the health of the children. She points to a child of about 4 and says that the girl contracted malaria the week before. The woman had carried her grandchild on her back for the six miles to the local hospital. When we got there, there was no quinine, the antimalarial medicine, available that day. With the child in high fever, the two were sent home and told to return the next day. In a small miracle, when they returned after another 6-mile trek, the quinine had come in, and the child responded to treatment and survived. It was close a call though. More than a million African children, and perhaps as many as 3 million, succumb to malaria each year..

As we proceed through the village, I stoop down to ask on one of the young girls her name and age. She looks about 7 or 8 but is actually 12, stunted form years of undernutrition. When I ask her what her dreams are for her own life, she says that she wants too be a teacher and that she is prepared to study and work hard to achieve that. I know that her chances of surviving to go on to secondary school and a teachers college are slim under the circumstances.

The plight of Malawi has been rightly described by Carrol Bellamy, head of UNICEF, as the perfect storm of human deprivation, one that brings together climatic disaster, impoverishment, the Aids pandemic and the long-standing burdens of malaria, schistosomiasis and other diseases. In the face of this horrific maelstrom, the world community has so far displayed a fair bit of hand-wringing and even some high-minded rhetoric, but precious little action. It is no good to lecture the dying that they should have done better with their lot in life. Rather it is our task to help them onto the ladder of development, to give them at least a foothold on the bottom rung, from which they can then proceed to climb on their own.

This is a story about ending poverty in our time. It is not a forecast. I am not predicting what will happen, only explaining what can happen. Currently, more than 8 million people around the world die each year because they are too poor to stay alive. Every morning our newspapers could report, “more than 20,000 people perished yesterday of extreme poverty. How? The poor die in hospital wards that lack drugs, in villages that lack antimalarial bed nets, in houses that lack safe drinking water. They die namelessly without public comment. Sadly such stories get seldom written.

Excerpted from The End of Poverty by Jeffrey D. Sachs. Copyright (c) by Jeffrey D. Sachs, 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.