Coming from distinctly different backgrounds, Jeffrey Sachs and Greg Mortenson may be an unlikely poverty-fighting team but their can-do message drew an overwhelming crowd to the Arlington Theatre last week. Their conclusion: “The ability of people of goodwill to work together is a universal truth.”

Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute, shared the stage, speaking about issues ranging from education to a strategy to promote primary health care and infrastructure in developing countries. The UCSB Arts & Lectures forum was presented as part of the “Alleviating Global Poverty Event Series,” with assistance provided by Direct Relief International.

Sachs spoke first in reference to his newest book, Common Wealth-Economics for a Crowded Planet. An avid opponent of purely market-based solutions, Sachs outlined a 10-step plan the United States can follow to foster economic growth, global cooperation and improved well-being.

“We are at a moment of profound risk and profound opportunity; that is the paradox of our time,” he said.

“The basic truth is that 10 million children died last year because they were too poor to stay alive,” he said. “Unlocking the poor from poverty is the most urgent of challenges, it’s a matter of life and death for millions of people.”

Sachs emphasized that we are living in a $70 trillion economy, with the tools and technology needed to improve food production, facilitate education, promote environmental sustainability and decrease poverty.

“All that’s needed to help end poverty is 70 cents of each dollar of GDP going to international aid,” he said. “That’s too much for people who have nothing, but nothing for people have enough.”

Mortenson then spoke about his book, Three Cups of Tea, which outlines his journey through the most remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, building schools for children who often had no access to an education.

He said his objective is to promote peace, not fight terrorism.

“When you fight terrorism, it’s based on fear,” he said. “When you promote peace, it’s based on hope.”

To promote this type of hope, he said, poverty must be alleviated.

“In order to understand poverty, you have to touch poverty. You can’t solve poverty from a think tank in (Washington) D.C., you have to be with poverty, embrace poverty,” he said. “Only then can you alleviate poverty.”

Mortenson should know. After spending more than a year living in his van and writing letters to celebrities asking for money, his single response was a $100 check from then-NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. After a few hundred more letters, funding finally came in and, after more than three years, the first school, Korphe School, was built in Pakistan’s Braldo Valley.

The school was such a success that, to date, Mortenson and his foundation, the Central Asia Institute, have built more than 60 schools. The schools are teaching more than 25,000 children, more than half of them girls. 

“Unless there is education, society won’t change,” Mortenson explained. “These extremist groups, their biggest fear is not the bullet, but the pen. A girl with an education empowers the community.”

In Afghanistan, there has been a seven-fold increase in the number of schools built in the past seven years, he said.

“Why isn’t the news broadcasting that!” he exclaimed.

Later in the evening, the two men sat down for a conversation with Richard P. Appelbaum, a UCSB professor of sociology and global and international studies.

They both agreed that “human connections can transcend all.”

When asked what strategies they each learned from each other, Mortenson replied, “We have to take these small village-level successes and implement them on a big scale.”

The event ended with Appelbaum asking the duo, “What can we as citizens do to help?”

Mortenson replied, “Have hope, be optimistic, set big international visionary goals. Change the current vision of the future of this planet by helping one child go to school.”

“And elect a president that will be our partner,” added Sachs.

Natali Morad is a Noozhawk intern.