We can banish extreme poverty in our generation--yet 8 million people die each year because they are too poor to survive. The trag edy is that with a little help, they could even thrive. In a bold new book, Jeffrey D. Sachs shows how we can make it happen
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. The midmorning temperature is sweltering. In this subsistence maize-growing 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 rainwater-collecting units 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.
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 semi-rotten, 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 they 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 six-mile trek, the quinine had come in, and the child responded to treatment and survived. It was a close call though. More than 1 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 one of the young girls her name and age. She looks about 7 or 8 but is actually 12, stunted from years of undernutrition. When I ask her what her dreams are for her own life, she says that she wants to 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.