Jeffrey Sachs' work on health and wealth issues have made him one of the world's most respected economists. And if what he says about Asia rings true then the future looks bright, writes Peter Kammerer
Without doubt, Jeffrey Sachs is headed for a Nobel Prize for economics. There is no argument that his intelligence and insight have improved the lives of millions of people.
From advising governments on how best to reform their economies through achieving sustainable development for poor countries to combating environmental degradation and helping fight malaria, he is quietly improving the world.
Yet, Professor Sachs is hardly a household name; rather, it is one familiar in academic circles, to those involved in organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and readers of his books and newspaper and magazine articles.
What he lacks in global fame is clearly made up for in the level of respect and influence he commands. That was evident on Tuesday when he spoke to the Asia Society and alumni of America's prestigious Columbia University at the Ritz-Carlton hotel: his views and advice were treated as coming from a sage.
Rightly so - after all, he was a full professor at Harvard University at 29, turning around Latin American, Eastern European and Asian economies from his 30s and now, at 50, is director of Columbia's Earth Institute and a special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
That was why the Hong Kong audience hung on to his every word - which for Asia was good, although there were sufficient warnings of potential pitfalls.
'The 21st century is not the American century - it is really the Asian century,' he proclaimed.
By 2050, China would overtake the absolute size of the US economy by as much as 75 per cent and India would be just slightly eclipsing it. Neither would be as rich per capita as the US - China's people may be perhaps half as wealthy as Americans, while Indians would have a quarter as much wealth.
'That is a prospect I look forward to,' Professor Sachs said. 'It would be wonderful for the region and good for the world and the US. But it will take a lot of wisdom, rationality, hard work and good will to get us safely from here to there.'
Gravely, he intoned: 'The challenges are huge.'
Pay heed, Asia. After all, the Detroit-born professor of sustainable development, health and management is regarded as one of the world's foremost economists. Time Magazine has called him one of the world's 50 promising leaders, he has been named among America's 500 most influential people in the field of foreign policy and the authoritative publication Nature in 2002 stated he had 'revitalised public health thinking since he brought his financial mind to it'.
Professor Sachs advises Mr Annan on a group of poverty alleviation initiatives called the Millennium Development Goals and he has been a consultant to the IMF, the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the UN Development Programme.
He is the recipient of many awards and honours, including membership in the US Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Fellows of the World Econometric Society. Among universities to award him honorary degrees are Hong Kong's Lingnan College and Switzerland's St Gallen University.
Among his research interests he lists the links of health and development, economic geography, globalisation, emerging markets, economic development and growth, global competitiveness, and macroeconomic policies in developing and developed countries.
Put simply, Professor Sachs has moved beyond pure economics and has immersed himself in trying to improve the world. His ideas have had great effect in Russia, Poland and Bolivia, among others, and he hopes the same will be due in China, where he has been involved in a development project for the past three years.
His interest in the mainland's spectacular growth and health issues have crossed in his work to combat the mosquito-borne disease malaria.
'One of the most exciting things for me is trying to do something about the scourge of malaria during the past decade, a disease that kills almost three million children each year - almost all in sub-Saharan Africa,' he said.
The key, he said, lay in the China-made drug Artekin, produced from a Chinese herb. As the most effective anti-malarial drug, it would save millions of lives over coming years.
'To me, it's the beginning example of what Chinese science and technology can mean for the whole world,' he said. 'Science and technology is good for national development, but it is shared for all humanity and we're about to see an enormously favourable burgeoning of science in Asia.'
Science and technology, Professor Sachs said, along with demography, politics, geopolitics and the environment, was crucial to the region's rise in importance in coming decades. With the former, China and India were following the right path, although difficulties could lie ahead in the other areas.
Population growth was slowing, helped greatly by the mainland's one-child policy. Nonetheless, India would overtake China, most likely by 2050, reaching 1.6 billion people from the present 1.1 billion, compared to the mainland's 1.5 billion from today's 1.3 billion.
Trying to find prosperity for so many people would be extremely challenging, he said. The environmental and social consequences of so many people was daunting and the quicker the basic demographics were brought under control, the better.
Professor Sachs believed the mainland did not have a political system compatible with its long-term aspirations of development. The centralised, bureaucratic administrations which had served so well in providing stability and peace over the past 2,000 years had to eventually give way to democracy.
'There will need to be change in China in coming decades,' he advised. 'There will be democratisation, but how it happens and in what context is a major question for the world, as well as for China.'
How the US and European nations reacted to the rise of China and India was also of concern, he said. The emergence of Germany and Japan during the 20th century led to two world wars and this had to be averted for the sake of humanity in the case of Asia's burgeoning powers. 'Will the US accept smoothly the rise of China's and India's power in the next decades? Will China and India act in a way that facilitates that transition to full development?'
The great geopolitical challenge was helping to explain that China's prosperity was good for the world, not dangerous. The US needed to be assured that Asia's development was one of the great world-stabilising features.
Lastly, with the world's population at 6.3 billion and expected to grow by three billion in the next 50 years, environmental issues were also important to consider, the professor suggested. Such numbers were threatening virtually every aspect of the world's ecosystems - something particularly noticeable already in China, which was experiencing water scarcity, massive deforestation and pollution problems. Energy was also a pressing matter.
'If China and India and other rising powers use fossil fuels - coal in particular - under current technologies, we'll probably end up tripling the carbon content in the atmosphere and there will be profound chances of a massive destabilisation of climate and ecosystems in all parts of the world,' Professor Sachs warned.
Scientists at his Earth Institute were working to prevent such environmental catastrophes through finding ways to make emissions safer. This was only part of the solution, though, he said.
Given Professor Sachs' standing, his advice will doubtless be noted by governments - although whether it will be taken to heart is quite another thing. That he is personally involved in some of the areas he fears could be problematic can only be comforting.
With such wisdom, and perhaps with hindsight to ward off the mistakes of history, Asia can move smoothly into its anticipated position of economic and social power.
By then, Professor Sachs should have received the Nobel Prize he so rightly deserves.