The philosophy of Jeffrey Sachs revolves around a simple tenet: the world’s problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man. Of course, immediately following that simple idea is an avalanche of complexity: how to decide which issues get priority, how to navigate through governments, how to raise funds for foreign aid, how to distribute those funds. For most, the list can seem endless and the greater picture nearly unimaginable. But not to economist Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs has the uncanny ability to see not only the greater picture, but also the ability to map it. And that conceptual mapping is key: if you can’t measure distance, you can’t truly plan for the journey.

Although just a few years over 50, Sachs’ journey as an economist has been decades in the making. Not surprisingly, his resulting resume is as profound and far-reaching as his global influence. Sachs gained a reputation early on in his career as a creative and effective economic advisor for financially failing countries. He eventually left consulting work and returned to his alma mater to lead the Harvard Institute for International Development and then later, a spin-off program called the Center for International Development. Involvement with the United Nations was a natural fit for Sachs, who is now Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals and was the director of the United Nations Millennium Project from 2004 until 2006. Currently, Sachs serves as the Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, the goal of which is to help achieve sustainable development primarily by expanding the world’s understanding of the earth as one integrated system. And in the midst of all this, Sachs authored the book The End of Poverty, outlining the ways in which we can end poverty within our lifetimes. His considerable work has led him to become the only academic repeatedly ranked among the world’s most influential people by Time magazine.

Sachs was the most recent speaker at the prestigious Reith lectures, a series of lectures held in different worldwide locations that are both sponsored and broadcast by BBC radio. Sachs' five lectures were part of his Reith series entitled “Bursting at the Seams”. You can also read his recent Time article which discusses how American individuals and organizations are joining the "Global Coalition of Good."

DESIGN 21 asked Jeffrey Sachs about how design fits into his global fight to end poverty. Here’s what he said:

D21: Solutions to the epidemic of extreme poverty require cooperation and collaboration across many disciplines, countries and borders. Open source collaborations seem key to creating comprehensive solutions; not only can they create more informed “products” (based on the comprehensive knowledge of many), but they create a sense of collective morale, a sense of togetherness and unification. How can you see design tapping in to open source initiatives in the quest to end poverty?

JS: The most exciting development in recent years is that the world has gotten behind a shared set of goals. Several global commitments are pre-eminent: the commitment to fight extreme poverty contained in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); the commitment to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions as part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change; the commitment to combat desertification in the world’s dry land regions, in the UN Convention to Combat Desertification; and the commitment to preserve biodiversity in the Convention on Biological Diversity. Taken together, I call these global commitments our Millennium Promises, since they are the collective aspirations of the world for a more peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable new millennium.

The world’s governments often ignore their own words even before the ink is dry, but civil society, increasingly, is forging a worldwide network of private action to spur achievement of the great objectives. I believe that the design community, and all of the rest of us (in economics, engineering, the arts, public health and more) should take our cue from the shared global commitments. If we all act to add our part to shared global goals, we can achieve what we’ve promised even if our governments are woefully inadequate. The world’s civil society can loosely coordinate, by keeping “our eye on the prize,” achieving what we’ve set out to accomplish.

D21: You said, “The main role of government is stand prepared, with checkbook at hand and policy book ready, to take working solutions to the needed scale” and that what is needed are “individual champions of solutions.” How do designers fit into that equation?

JS: Designers are the key to showing how to mobilize cutting-edge technologies, new materials, and new approaches to older materials and technologies, in order to solve problems such as clean water, safe cook stoves, low-cost housing, internet connectivity for the poor, safe methods of delivery of medicines and vaccines (such as safe syringes), and much more. Design embodied in sustainable technologies provide the blueprint. Typically, path-breaking approaches can be found at low cost. Once these are proved, then they can be taken to scale through a combination of market incentives, development assistance and large-scale philanthropic efforts.


Jeffrey Sachs kneels beside pigeon peas which were harvested as part of an agricultural project in the Millennium Village of Mwandama, Malawi.
Photo courtesy Millennium Promise

D21: What are some of the most effective design solutions you’ve seen implemented in very poor regions? Why was that design effective?

JS: Let me give one favorite example, the “humble” anti-malaria bed net. Scientists have shown in the past 20 years that a simple bed net, treated with an insecticide, can protect communities from the ravages of malaria, a killer disease transmitted in the tropics by mosquito. With excellent design and engineering, a major problem has been solved in the past decade. Instead of needing to “retreat” the nets with insecticide every few months as in the past, new “long-lasting insecticide-treated nets” (LLINs) last for five years. This is a design and engineering triumph. The Sumitomo Chemical Company, for example, learned how to put the insecticide right into the resin that is the feedstock to produce the nets, so that the resulting nets can be regularly washed during a five-year period without losing their insecticidal treatment. This design change, seemingly simple but based on cutting-edge engineering, has changed the face of malaria control, and will contribute to saving millions of lives in the future. Design breakthroughs will play similar roles in many other areas, including food production, preparation and storage, energy supplies, access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene, and connectivity of remote communities to the rest of the region and world.

D21: We live in a capital-driven society. One designer who does a lot of work in developing nations says that designers can think of designing for “the other 90%” as a money-making endeavor (i.e. if you make a simple, effective design that makes 50 cents off of 50 million people, you’ve made a lot of money). If the argument for aid is reframed as investment rather than charity, do you think countries like the United States would be more apt to commit to their Millennium Promises?

JS: There is definitely business “at the bottom of the pyramid,” as the business school professors put it. We need a judicious blend of business and direct public support. Bed nets should be viewed as a public health need, not a business commodity. On the other hand, cell phone connectivity is already a successful business in many of the poorest villages and regions of the world. Any healthy society combines public action to ensure that the poorest of the poor have access to their basic needs, while at the same time promoting business solutions to spur incomes and long-term economic development.

D21: After the failings of the U.S. government during and after hurricane Katrina, domestic disaster aid/solutions have garnered national attention (i.e. FEMA trailers, etc.). Would it be wise for designers to look at designing for disasters as ways to also fund design solutions for ongoing problems in developing countries and thus think beyond a particular use? For example, shelters for the displaced during hurricane Katrina could also be used for refugees in Darfur or Sierra Leone.

JS: The key for designers is to understand the real needs of particular communities. Loose analogies are not sufficient. I recommend that all who are interested in these activities to make a special effort to understand the local ecologies and economies of the poor, in different parts of the world. Much of success will come from taking general solutions (in energy, water, food, shelter and more) and applying those general lessons in ways that are socially and ecologically appropriate and urgent. The key is to work with local communities and to understand their needs. Holistic approaches such as the Millennium Villages are particularly powerful because they are both grounded in local ecological realities and community leadership, while helping to address the challenges in a holistic manner.

Pictured (top): Jeffrey Sachs speaks to residents of the Millennium Village of Mbola, Tanzania. Photo courtesy Millennium Promise


Jeffrey Sach's article in Time magazine (September 6, 2007) which discusses how individuals in the US are joining the global coalition to do good.

See also DESIGN 21's Millennium Promise Competition and enter your scheme to support the Millennium Development Goals. Entries close June 17, 2008.

Posted October 23, 2007