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Jeffrey Sachs on the Millennium Development Goals

Jeffrey Sachs. Photo: European Parliament

World leaders are convening in New York this week for the 65th General Assembly of the United Nations. International officials will also meet to assess and possibly reevaluate a series of ambitious goals established 10 years ago for improving living conditions in the world’s poorest nations. Those targets, the Millennium Development Goals, have been criticized by many as being unrealistic, and several recent reports have suggested that the U.N. is unlikely to achieve many of them by the original goal of 2015.

To get a sense of why the Millennium Development Goals have achieved so little traction, especially here in the U.S., Need to Know’s Abby Leonard spoke with Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, a renowned economist and special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Sachs founded the Millennium Promise Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to achieving the Millennium goals, and until 2006 he served as the director of the United Nations Millennium Project. He is currently also a professor of sustainable development and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Abby Leonard: These goals were put in place 10 years ago but it seems like we haven’t heard much about them since then. What progress has been made?

Jeffrey Sachs: The goals are not well known to say the least in the U.S. You often go weeks or months without hearing about them from our politicians. But to the surprise of many people, they have become the organizing principle for development in countries throughout the world.

Leonard: Do Americans simply lack the appetite for international causes?

Sachs: It’s the American leadership that has not played the role it should be playing and that leaders in other countries have been playing. You don’t hear about [the millennium goals] from Obama, and you didn’t hear about them from Bush or Clinton, so Americans just don’t know about them. I believe myself that there’s a great deal more interest and engagement among Americans than our politicians recognize. When they do pursue them, like Bush’s initiatives to fight AIDS, there is a positive response from Americans. And they do ask good hard questions – will it really work? It’s not opposition, just scrutiny and common sense.

It’s not an accident that the U.S. ranks lowest of all major donor countries in the world — that is the share of our income that goes to development aid. Americans will ask whether, because were so generous privately, that makes up the difference. But it doesn’t. We still rank far below other countries. We go months at a time, years at a time, without hearing about this. Whereas in the UK, all the major candidates for prime minister made great efforts to make clear that they support the Millennium Development Goals.

Leonard: How will this week’s summit — and its resulting report document —  affect the followthrough on those goals?

Sachs: It’s a very fine document, with lots of nice sentiments, but like many such rhetorical documents, it’s not an action plan. What needs to come out of this meeting is a translation of commitments from donor countries into the kind of actions that can truly support the acceleration. In every major area, there are very practical things promised, and if there is followthrough, there will be breakthroughs.

Leonard: Can you point to areas of success that prove these programs are worth continuing?

Sachs: There’s been a lot of progress. Ten years ago, [Africa] was a continent basically in war: Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Horn of Africa. Now, most of these war zones are at least in a fragile way, quiet. Economic growth has increased rather considerably from 0 to negative in the ‘90s to positive 5 or 6 percent in this decade. So there’s been a lot of progress.

The Millennium Development Goals point the way. We still need basic infrastructure and China’s been financing a great deal of infrastructure there. The point is to make all of this much more systematic, to have a real investment plan that enables governments to say, within the next five years here’s a power grid and a health system put in place with the help of partner financing.

Leonard: China has been accused of neocolonialism in Africa. Is that fair?

Sachs: I think it’s without merit. China’s doing a tremendous job helping Africa to develop. I think some traditional donors are saying, “What’s China doing there?” They say China’s getting concessions for minerals and oil. But there’s a lot of competition for that, and other countries and companies are winning their share.

Of course, China’s a new donor, and this is its first time doing it at this scale, taking on some of these big projects. There’s been learning around best ways to do this. For a while, China brought all workers from China; now they are hiring locals. Those are inevitable adjustment realities. China’s playing an important role – first as a buyer of resources, second as an investor of commercial capital and third as development donor.

Leonard: Why is it so difficult to motivate people in donor countries to push for the completion of the goals?

Sachs: There are politics at play. For example, I find the politics around education shocking and simply not understandable. There is almost no international financial support for it. Everyone knows education’s important, but no one wants to support it. I would’ve said that one’s easy, AIDS will be difficult. But the scale up for AIDS actually came first.

The world waxes and wanes with enthusiasm for one of the goals or another. This year, maternal and child health are getting particular attention. We have no shortage of resources on this planet. If you want to find them, then rein in the military budgets, the tax-free accounts of billionaires or the bonuses of Wall Street bankers. The balance isn’t even remotely correct.

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