News Archive

posted 02/20/04

Earth Institute Fights Poverty Worldwide
Scientists target hunger, malaria, economic development

IRI epidemiologist Madeleine Thomson at a solar-powered radio station in the highlands of West Africa, where daily broadcasts provide nomadic herdsmen with climate and health information. Photo credit: Mohammed Boulahya

February 20, 2004 - Directed by Columbia economists Nirupam Bajpai and Jeffrey Sachs, the Gujarat project is just one example of how harnessing science to fight global poverty lies at the core of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. In the Indian State of Gujarat, scientists from the Earth Institute at Columbia have been working at the juncture of science and economic development: seismology and disaster management strategies, seasonal and inter-annual climate prediction as it affects agriculture, and water resource management are three topics of research. Climate and earthquake experts are working together with economists to develop strategies to reduce poverty in the state, attract foreign direct investment, and promote labor-intensive manufacturing exports.

Poverty is often defined in terms of people who make less than $1 per day. The Earth Institute instead looks at "human needs poverty," a question of whether someone has a basic level of nutrition, health, education, access to water — the background needed to create conditions for economic growth. This approach follows the framework laid out by the Millennium Project, a United Nations initiative to recommend action plans for cutting global poverty in half by 2015. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, also directs the UN Millennium Project.

Both the Millennium Project and the Earth Institute's anti-poverty work are organized around outcomes, explains John McArthur, who manages the work of the ten Millennium Project task forces and is also on the staff of the Earth Institute's Center for Globalization and Economic Development. "What we need to do," McArthur says, "rather than looking at existing resources and asking what incremental improvements can be made, is figure out what is needed to fix the problems, then organize efforts and dollars around those solutions." Following are examples of Earth Institute projects that are aimed at fighting poverty around the world:

Climate connections: The International Research Institute for Climate Prediction (IRI) specializes in providing climate prediction information in support of human development. In the Greater Horn of Africa, an area comprising parts of ten countries, new climate models are showing accuracy in predicting outbreaks of the cattle disease Rift Valley Fever. The region's economy, heavily dependent on cattle trade across the Red Sea, can be devastated by blanket trade bans related to this disease. Maxx Dilley of the IRI has been working with several countries and organizations to encourage more rational cattle trading regulatory system based on accurate reporting and transparent governance, supported by information provided by the climate models. On the other side of the continent, in the West African Sahel, nomadic herders are at risk of many infectious diseases including epidemic malaria and bacterial meningitis (both deadly to non-immune populations and thus the cause of catastrophic health problems that severely hamper social and economic development in the region). IRI health scientists Madeleine Thomson and Steve Connor are part of a new study called NOMADE, which uses climate information to predict and then combat these climate-related diseases in the Sahel. The NOMADE study aims to inform regional epidemic control initiatives spanning six West African countries from Mauritania to Chad, which aim to dramatically improve health and economic development prospects in this semi-arid region.

Poverty Mapping: The Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) is working to produce data maps to help tailor anti-poverty programs at a sub-national level. Most global scientific and social science data is collected and published on a country-by-country basis. But with new, spatially correlated biophysical and socioeconomic data becoming ever more widely available, it becomes possible to examine correlations between, say, water availability and malnutrition, or species richness, population density, and threats to biodiversity, on a smaller, sub-national spatial scale. Alex De Sherbinin and Marc Levy, data experts with CIESIN, have been working on how to handle the less available and less reliable sub-national data, and have produced many innovative maps of human poverty and environmental data. Some of these were published in the 2003 United Nations Development Report. The maps illustrate, for instance, how vulnerable populations in Africa can be identified by correlating incomes with water availability and health information about people's weight.

Rwandan youth celebrating the July 2003 launch of a Global Fund HIV testing and treatment project, which is facilitated by the Center for Global Health and Economic Development. Photo credit: Celina Schlocken

Health: Diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV, and malaria devastate economies and destabilize societies. As Jeffrey Sachs notes, "Disease control is an economic and security priority, as well as a humanitarian imperative." The Earth Institute addresses the economic burdens of disease in several ways. For example, the Earth Institute jointly runs the Center for Global Health and Economic Development (CGHED) with the Mailman School of Public Health, to mobilize global health resources toward effective health care, often in areas where disease cripples prospects for economic growth. CGHED works with many African nations to develop management plans to qualify for Global Fund resources. In Rwanda, for example, CGHED is working directly with the Minister of Health to scale up AIDS intervention. Meanwhile Awash Teklehaimanot, the Director of the Malaria Program at Columbia and a member of the Task Force on Malaria for the UN Millennium Project, provides technical support to malaria-endemic countries in designing, funding, and implementing health care infrastructures focusing on malaria. Closer to home, Patrick Kinney researches health impacts of airborne particulates in the New York area, which disproportionately affect the poor through conditions such as asthma.

Economic competitiveness: Approaches similar to that taken in Gujarat, India (see above) are also being employed by Earth Institute experts in several other areas of the world. In 2003, the Earth Institute was active in the Dominican Republic, Ghana, and several Latin American countries in the Andes region, among others, A small country off the coast of West Africa called Sao Tomé and Principe discovered rich oil deposits, and asked Jeffrey Sachs and the Earth Institute to design legal and other protections so that these deposits could become the basis for environmentally responsible economic growth throughout the small nation, rather than degrading the environment and enriching a few.

Agriculture: The Tropical Agriculture Program of the Earth Institute at Columbia University addresses the interactions and links between environment, agriculture, health, poverty, and economic growth. In Kampala Uganda, for instance, Cheryl Palm and Mary Booth are working with scientists from Makerere University in Kampala to explore how changes in carbon and nitrogen cycles affect the agricultural productivity and ecosystems, and how they are linked with both rural and urban economies. Nutrients are being depleted in the rural, agricultural areas leading to declines in crop yields and environmental degradation, while at the same time they are being transported to Kampala as harvested products and may be deposited in concentrated levels as garbage that affects nearby urban drinking water, and downstream wetlands and Lake Victoria. The Tropical Agriculture Program's director, 2004 MacArthur Fellow Pedro Sanchez, is leading the Program's researchers to work on the three-tiered approach to ending hunger in Africa that has been identified by the Millennium Project Hunger Task Force, a special advisory body to the United Nations Secretary-General. This approach is defined by 1)improving agricultural productivity by restoring soil fertility through environmentally beneficial means, 2)investing in infrastructure and communications to encourage market participation, and 3)investing in childhood nutrition and education through school lunches with locally produced food, along with other direct interventions.

Hazards: The poorest people in the world are hit hardest when disasters such as floods, earthquake, or droughts happen in their communities. The Center for Hazards and Risks Research at the Earth Institute (CHRR) is working to build understanding of risks, probability, and barriers to risk reduction, with an ultimate goal of reducing the suffering of the poorest during times of crisis. Science-based hazard mitigation — such as improved housing construction and early warning systems — is an important alternative to disaster relief. It not only can save lives, but also represents a way to safeguard development goals in vulnerable societies, where natural hazards can deter investors and separate a country from the global economy. Since the 1960s, global economic losses from natural disasters alone — events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and tornadoes — have generally tripled in each decade, totaling roughly $600 billion in the 1990s. CHRR is currently working with the governments of Istanbul, Caracas, and Gujarat to plan hazard reduction. It is also engaged in a two-year, World Bank-sponsored global assessment of multiple hazards called the Hazard Hotspots project, whose goal is to catalog those areas at greatest risk of having climate events turn into human or environmental disasters.

These are only a sample of the Earth Institute's many projects aimed at harnessing science in the fight against global poverty. The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information please visit www.earth.columbia.edu