Low Plaza

Columbia Scientists Working to Improve Health and Economy in South Asia

By Jason Hollander

Due in part to assistance from Columbia, a family in a small village in Bangladesh may soon have drinking water that is free of arsenic and other poisons. In fact, the University is involved in projects that stand to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people in South Asia over the next several years.

President Lee C. Bollinger, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, and Dean Allan Rosenfield of the Mailman School of Public Health, recently visited India and Bangladesh to meet with government officials and tour sites with Columbia researchers working to help countries in the region take important steps in the fields of health, science and economics. In addition, Sachs and Nirupam Bajpai, senior research scholar at the Earth Institute, traveled to Sri Lanka to address the country's severe drought problems.

"I think what we are doing in India and elsewhere demonstrates the depth and reach of Columbia's intellectual leadership globally," said Bollinger. "I am extremely pleased and proud that Columbia, as one of the premier research Universities in the world, is able to provide both thought leadership, scientific expertise, and practical help to improve the lives of so many people. Both the Mailman School and the Earth Institute are true pioneers and will continue to play a key role in development issues around the globe."

Sachs was also optimistic about Columbia's efforts upon returning from the trip. "We'll be able to play a pivotal role through the application of science, technology and good public policy," he said.

The Mailman School of Public Health and the Earth Institute recently formed the Center for Global Health and Economic Development (CGHED) as a joint venture based at the Mailman School. The Center focuses on mobilizing global health programs to aid resource-poor countries in addressing poverty and the burden of disease. The approach is cross-disciplinary, incorporating the fields of earth science, biological science, engineering science, social science and health science.

Bollinger, Sachs, and Bajpai, met in India with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam along with the union minister of finance, minister of health, and minister of commerce and industry, among others. Rosenfield joined them and helped launch India's new Commission on Macroeconomics and Health. Sachs and Rosenfield also pledged to have CGHED work with the new Commission -- supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation -- in an effort to target health sector priorities in order to spur economic development.

India, the world's second most populated country, currently spends far less on individual health care than that recommended by the World Health Organization. A report already released by the Commission, which was chaired by Sachs, titled "Investing in Health for Economic Development," notes that improvements in health can translate into the ability to achieve higher incomes, create greater economic gains and reduce population growth.

Bajpai is director of the South Asia Program for the Earth Institute's Center for Globalization and Sustainable Development and also serves as an advisor to Indian Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He noted that the challenge of affecting change is figuring out how to integrate the important work of scholars from various disciplines. Bajpai believes that the collaboration of economists and natural scientists offers the best chance of achieving sustainable progress.

Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Department of Economics are collaborating on a project in Bangladesh that is addressing high levels of arsenic in the water supply, threatening to poison tens of millions of people. The Columbia delegates, including Joseph Graziano, professor of environmental health sciences at the Mailman School, met with Bangladesh's Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, assuring her they are eager to offer assistance.

Alexander Van Geen, Doherty Senior Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and the team of earth, health and social scientists working in Bangladesh are trying to help figure out the most effective way of creating a system that can provide well water that meets safety guidelines. The efforts of Columbia scientists like him are essential because, as Van Geen notes, the Bangladeshi government is having great trouble deciding how to solve the problem.

Bollinger, Sachs, and Rosenfield discussed the Mailman School's Averting Maternal Death and Disability program with UNICEF staff in Bangladesh. The program is an effort to reduce the high rates of maternal mortality. Funded by the Gates Foundation, the global program currently operates in over 40 countries, with the program in Bangladesh being the largest single project. Rosenfield noted that Mailman faculty, working closely with UNICEF staff and local governmental and NGO officials are committed to providing all women access to emergency obstetrical care, in an effort to avoid unnecessary maternal deaths.

Sachs and Bajpai later met with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and a number of his senior cabinet colleagues in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. They talked about the economic and social challenges facing the country and how to help the population recover from a civil war that has lasted for nearly 20 years, taking devastating tolls on health and the economy. Sachs said he believes the Earth Institute can play a strong role in addressing Sri Lanka's critical economic and environmental needs as the nation's peace process move forward.

"We came back absolutely committed to this and look forward to very exciting work between Columbia and our colleagues in South Asia in the months and years ahead," said Sachs.

The CGHED is expected to work with up to 18 countries over the next two years and will send teams to places like Ethiopia, Ghana and China.

Published: Apr 17, 2003
Last modified: Jun 17, 2003

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