Economist Jeffrey Sachs, 49, attacks the weeds in the capitalist landscape. He made his name helping Eastern-bloc and Latin American nations build market economies in the 1980s and 1990s. And since 2002, he has run Columbia University’s multidisciplinary Earth Institute and advised the United Nations on development goals. Sachs’s conclusion: You don’t need a PhD to redress humanity’s saddest oversights. “The more I study controlling malaria or immunizing children, the more straightforward it all is,” he says. “Ignorance breeds the fear that these problems are too big to tackle.” Sachs spoke with Fast Company about globalization, malaria, and hope.
Fast Company: What are our biggest problems?
SACHS: I’m focusing on a world divided between rich and poor, and a world that doesn’t seem to be able to manage the natural base of our lives: air, oceans, or biodiversity. It’s a mistake to think that globalization is automatically beneficent and should run its due course–but also to think that it ought to be shut down.
FC: What have you learned about the very poor?
SACHS: That there are different problems in different places. Development can really work everywhere. But most of sub-Saharan Africa, the Andean region, and Central Asia face obstacles [of disease and isolation]. These are not cases of whether government cares or doesn’t care, or is corrupt or uncorrupt. The haphazardness of life and death is absolutely shocking.
FC: And how does business fit in?
SACHS: Business often does a good job supporting communities: the arts, universities, and scientific enterprise. Businesses that are here to stay know that they’re part of a broader community. But that philosophy has rarely reached poor countries. Even businesses that are enlightened in their home bases see Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia as places to exploit natural resources or use cheap labor. This is failing internationally, as it would domestically.
FC: So if a bunch of CEOs walked in and said they wanted to help, what would you tell them?
SACHS: Let’s say you had ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil saying, We’re investing in West Africa, what do we do? Well, the model of the past 20 years–protecting staff from malaria while ignoring the dying among you–is no longer workable. You have to engage with what business does best. Set real targets. Have quantifiable goals. I would tell these businesspeople that if they took up ending malaria in Nigeria or deforestation in Ghana, they would find a lot of partners. You don’t have to start in the hardest places: I’ll take you to governments that are ready and empowered to act. But don’t believe it can happen without you.
FC: Is there coursework that businesspeople should take? You talk about setting hard targets for ending malaria, but that’s something few people know how to do, right?
SACHS: You’ve just given me a very good idea! We’ve been telling businesses that they ought to do it but not focused on practical steps. Providing some advice and training is a marvelous idea.
FC: So people should email you directly?
SACHS: Sure. [email@example.com]