Markus A. Langer talks with economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, University Professor and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. March 13, 2014
“Yes, we can end extreme poverty”
Markus A. Langer: Professor Sachs, you say that we have entered the Age of Sustainable Development. Your message is: “Business as usual is over”. What is sustainable development?
Jeffrey Sachs: We live on a very crowded planet. 7.2 billion people, an interconnected global economy of 90 trillion dollars per year and enormous impacts of human action on the natural environment to the point of changing the oceans chemistry, changing the land surface around the planet, destroying habitat of other species and of course changing the climate. We are so big, so interconnected and with such dynamic change that we need to understand human society as an interconnected global society now they can solve critical problems like ending extreme poverty but can also create huge damage if we’re not careful. So sustainable development is both a scientific approach to integrate economic, social and environmental systems in our thinking. But it’s also a set of goals, it’s the idea that a healthy society whether in a country or globally needs to focus not only on growing the economy, but also on social cohesion, the strength of community and of course on environmental sustainability. It’s a holistic approach to life of an integrated global society.
How can we achieve economic growth (development) that remains within planetary boundaries?
Jeffrey Sachs: The challenge is that as the world economy grows and especially as poor countries get richer if they simply follow the path that the rich world has followed previously we will destroy the very biophysical foundations of our wellbeing. The climate will change by several degrees centigrade on average temperature. We will have more extreme storms, the ocean level will rise even by meters. We will have a huge loss of biodiversity just as is occurring when many species are under tremendous threat, even of extinction. So we have to find ways to have economic betterment without physical destruction. And a key example of this perhaps one of the two most important is the energy system. We have to move from our reliance on fossil fuels which is the traditional way of development to a world energy system that is built on low carbon energy, whether its wind power or solar power or geothermal energy or in some countries nuclear power or possibly what’s called carbon capture and sequestration. The idea is we can’t go on emitting carbon dioxide through energy use at the rate we are, because the damage would be phenomenal. The other major human system that needs quite deep change is how we produce food because the global food system also is not sustainable the way we’re doing it. It itself causes a lot of climate change, it itself is part of the pollution problem, the water depletion problem and yet we need to feed the planet nutritionally and with security and for a growing world population. So these are huge challenges in both cases technological change and change of human behavior. How we live our lives will be important not just one or the other.
Can technologies solve most of the problems? How sustainable is the Green Revolution in India and Africa?
Jeffrey Sachs: Technology is vital because the idea of finding what might sound good a low-tech way out of the problem isn’t really achievable anymore. Maybe if there were 1 billion people on the planet not 7.2 billion people, soon to be 8 billion and likely 9 billion maybe lower tech solutions would be feasible. But when you have more than 7 billion people crowded together and every one of them needs, expects, wants adequate food supply, safe drinking water, access to electricity and access to education of a kind that create a decent life. We have a major organizational challenge, a major scale challenge and there are still billions of people who feel completely left out of the international system. They don’t have electricity, they don’t have safe drinking water, they don’t have access to life-saving health care. They want more. And it’s not only understandable, it’s morally necessary that they are able to meet their needs. But given how stressed the environment is we have to be a lot smarter how the future economic growth takes place. And it’s not just a matter of telling poor countries you must do it differently from us, it’s a matter of all countries agreeing to reorient their societies. I say that every country needs an energy mandate to use the energy transition of Germany. Every country needs a strategy for moving to clean energy, safe water, protection of ecosystems and protection of each other
You said in your speech at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences last December that social inclusion would be a universal goal. What does this statement mean?
Jeffrey Sachs: Sustainable development as the governments of the United Nations have decided and the new sustainable development goals the member states are negotiating are based on three pillars. The first is economic growth including the end of poverty. The second is social inclusion meaning that every member of society, a child whether born poor or rich, a woman as well as a man, a member of a minority group, a member of a racial minority all have the same chance, of course equal protection of the law, but also social attitudes, ethical attitudes that give everybody equality, dignity and a chance to participate in the economy. One wishes that we were this way but we know that it isn’t. Right now we have very big divides between the rich and poor within countries. In my own country the United States the inequality has soared during the last 30 years. And so we have a lot of people who for all practical purposes are excluded from the benefits of what is on average a rich economy but for many millions of people, they do not feel rich at all, they are not, they’re living in exclusion, they’re living in poverty even in hunger in America, unable to pay health pills. This is the kind of social exclusion that is unforgivable and when it is tied to racial categories, when it is tied to gender, when it is tied to ethnicity, it’s so pernicious that we need to have our eyes open and say this can no longer stand.
Why do you believe that extreme poverty can be ended? Which are the strategies to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger especially in Africa and Asia?
Jeffrey Sachs: The world defines extreme poverty in two different ways. One is as living under a given income level and the World Bank puts that income level as $1.25 US per person per day. It’s pretty low and there are about 1 billion people in that situation. The other definition is that people cannot need basic needs, for example of safe water and sanitation or a school for the children or access to health care for the family. And so whether it’s by the income categorization or whether it’s by the basic needs category roughly one in seven people on the planet are still living in extreme poverty and the highest concentration of those extreme poor are sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, specially India but also Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal among the places where there’s high poverty. Can poverty be ended in these places? I believe it can be if these places with high concentrations of extreme poverty govern themselves properly and if the outside world helps these countries to build the infrastructure, the skills, the health and the basic systems of education, of public health and of infrastructure so that a normal economy can begin to take hold and so that the most urgent needs of the poor people especially their health, education access to safe water, access to reliable food supply and safety from physical hazards can all be met. I spent many, many years making calculations about how much all of this would cost. And the answer is that for the rich world to help the poor world this could be done on the budget that we have agreed many times in the past that rich countries would give 0.7 of 1% of their national income to development assistance. Of course in practice were only half that level, even a little bit less at about 0.32 of 1% of the donor countries. So this is what’s unfortunate that it’s utterly affordable one can identify practical strategies for raising the funds is proven to be very, very difficult.
You are one of the architects of the “Millennium Development Goals”: In your opinion, what are the achievements and failures?
Jeffrey Sachs: The biggest achievement is that the overall rate of extreme poverty has declined by more than half since 1990 which is the first half of goal number one. The second half is the sharp drop of hunger which is also occurring but both with extreme poverty and hunger there remain major areas that have not made the kind of breakthrough that they need. So that progress is significant. I would say equally dramatic progress is in the control of disease and preventable or treatable causes of death. There has been a significant decline of children deaths, a significant decline of death rates of mothers in childbirth and pregnancy in general. There has been control of some of the key diseases like malaria, not complete control but a death rate for children that has fallen by 50% since the year 2000. These are all big successes and the millennium development goals deserve a lot of credit for this. On the other hand there are notable failures. Many countries will not achieve all of the goals. Some will achieve very few of the goals maybe that’s poor governance or maybe it’s the lack of help from the outside. It’s some combination of the two. Or it could just be very bad luck because as we know certain parts of the world have been bombarded by terrible climate shocks or other catastrophes. And this can be a setback. On the whole the millennium development goals have directed attention towards urgent needs. They have caused a major scaling up of the fight against poverty. The rich countries have not lived up to their promise that they’ve done more than they were doing. The poor countries have gotten better organized and so the progress is real but incomplete. And what we need to do of course is therefore redouble our efforts. Because when we make the effort, we see the success in front of our eyes.
A set of “Sustainable Development Goals” should replace the MDGs. What will be the key pillars for these SDGs?
Jeffrey Sachs: The post 2015 development agenda will be based on sustainable development and so the goals will be called sustainable development goals. So move from MDGs to SDGs.
Ending extreme poverty will be asked e.g. number one so finishing the job of the millennium development goals will be the top priority. Just as MDG eight on good global partnership SDG 10, I believe, the final one will also be a governance goal of that sort. And then in between will be goals on economic, social and environmental pillars of sustainable development. Goals on decent jobs and economic growth, on universal access to health care and on universal access to at least secondary education, on clean energy and preventing climate change or curbing climate change, on preserving biodiversity, on resilient cities. Well, these are the ideas that are floating around of course the negotiations continue. There are other candidates for the goals. These goals will be finalized by world leaders at a summit in September 2015.
You suggest in your book “The end of poverty” a new approach to development economics – the so-called “clinical economics”. What does this term mean?
Jeffrey Sachs: I’m married to a wonderful medical clinician doctor who treats patients. My wife is a pediatrician and I’ve watched her in action now for more than 30 years as a wonderful practicing clinician. And the clinical arts are wonderful. They are based on science but they’re directed at solving the problems of real individuals in real time and real context. In other words general principles but those have to be applied to a real person. And that means that the clinician has first to make what’s called the differential diagnosis. What’s wrong with this individual, not what is that big thick volume say of all the things that could be wrong but what’s the particular thing that’s wrong with this particular person at this particular moment in their life and what can be done about it. That’s what clinical practices about, taking scientific principles, taking the engineering if you will of modern health sciences and applying it to solve particular problems. And as an economist I feel that this is what good economics should be about as well. Not simply high-minded statements or general principles but actual problem-solving in particular places of particular times and also based on the idea of differential diagnoses. Too many of my colleagues in economics think that there’s only one prescription. It’s as if they were a doctor that only treated one disease or they thought that any disease was just caused by one factor which we know not to be the case. Similarly when economies are sick there could be many, many things that are wrong. It could be bad governance, it could be bad policies, it could be bad luck, it could be a poverty trap where people are simply too poor to be able to afford the solutions that they need. And so a good clinical economist will solve the problem together of course with a range of experts within countries, within the city, within the region. That makes sense for the particular challenges that a country faces. Of course I don’t mean to imply that an economist is the doctor, we need expertise and participation across society but as a practicing economist I believe that the model of clinical medicine can be fruitfully applied to clinical economics.
Please tell me more about the Millennium Villages Project.
Jeffrey Sachs: The Millennium Villages Project is a project to implement the millennium development goals in 10 impoverished village areas across 10 countries of Africa. It’s to put to work the millennium development goals and several philanthropists came together and said that they would help support the application of best practices in education, in health care in agriculture, in conservation and infrastructure to help the poorest parts of Africa achieve the millennium goals and create examples of how this can be done generally. So the Millennium Villages Project has been operating for almost 9 years now. It will end in 2015 the same way that the millennium development goals will reach their end point. And we will evaluate the project fully at that point to see how far those villages got in the same way that we’re going to look how far the countries get. The experience has been very exciting and very positive because we see major progress in many, many areas. The final evaluation of the project though quantitatively will come next year and then will be reported in the middle of 2016.
Yesterday you said: We can do it. What will we have to do in the future?
Jeffrey Sachs: We can achieve sustainable development indeed we must and I believe it’s our shared responsibility. So my view is let’s set clear goals up to 2030 or up to 2050. Let’s work together across different parts of society to determine how those goals can be met and then let’s do the steps needed, whether it’s government policy or business or researching development or the good work of community organizations to meet those objectives based on the good analysis that can underpin solutions. Of course, we can solve these problems, in fact we have to.