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Work in Progress
13 September 12
Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, serves as Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary General on the Millennium Development Goals. As well as writing three New York Times bestselling books, Sachs was described as a “visionary economist, savior of Bolivia, Poland, and other struggling nations, adviser to the U.N. and movie stars” by Vanity Fair. One of his upcoming projects is leading the new Sustainable Development Solutions Network at the U.N. and, at the upcoming Millennium Campus Conference, a gathering for student and leading experts to discuss meeting the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, Sachs will be a keynote speaker. He spoke to The Eye about the conference, the possibility of a third-party movement in 2016, and why we may not have seen the end of Occupy Wall Street.
The Millennium Campus Conference will begin at Northeastern University on September 14-15. Will any of the Millennium Development Goals take precedence over others at the conference?
The most important point is to keep our focus and determination and to bring the energy to continue the fight to 2015. We’re in the final years of the campaign, and there’s been a lot of progress. But, as always, there are distractions in the world, and we have to keep the focus on maximizing progress that we’re making. All the goals are interconnected, meaning that by achieving any of them, you really do help to achieve others as well. I’ve always viewed them as a package, and the most important thing right now is to keep the awareness high and to get as far as we possibly can.
Can you provide some insight into where the MDGs have gone since they were adopted by the U.N. in 2000?
The basic idea was to take a holistic view of extreme poverty, meaning not just to count the income but to realize that it means kids not in school, girls and women facing discrimination in many places. It means a very heavy disease burden in poor countries with a lack of health coverage, and it means environmental risk and lack of access even to fresh water, safe water, and sanitation.
One of the main themes was that this was going to be a partnership of rich and poor countries. If I were to put an overall report card, I would say that the rich countries have actually been the ones that have not followed through. We have not had the consistent and promised increase of well-designed development aid that success requires. And we are even in a bigger squeeze right now because, after the financial crisis of 2008, many countries are canceling their development assistance.
You mentioned how the rich countries have not really followed through on their agreement. Why do you think foreign aid is never addressed as an election topic?
Because politicians think it’s unpopular. I think they’re wrong on many fronts. If we were more proactive on these issues, we’d have less war that we end up stumbling into afterwards. Second, it’s been my experience that the public actually supports these efforts to control disease and so forth, not only out of self-interest but out of our humanity. The politicians are just too cynical; they don’t believe that people believe in the cause of humanity. And so they’re afraid to ask the public to support such things. George Bush did, for example, in the case of fighting AIDS, and it [PEPFAR] turned out to be a hugely successful program, and a popular program, one that I think is George Bush’s proudest legacy.
When you spoke at Occupy Wall Street last year, you expressed some frustration about America’s campaign finance laws. How do you think Citizens United and the amount of money flowing into campaigns in this election cycle have changed the tone of this election?
Basically, big money has taken over everything in our society. Unfortunately, we’ve become so money-oriented everywhere that this is really having a pernicious effect on our values, on our standards, on our trust in each other, and the quality of government. My friends and leaders in other countries are just shocked that this is what passes for democracy in America. It’s just nothing like this in many other countries. There’s no reason that democracy has to be this money-drenched in the way that it is in the U.S. right now.
Just to return to Occupy Wall Street, you expressed approval of the movement in the past. Now that the first-year anniversary is coming up, what do you make of its achievements? Do you still consider it a viable movement?
This has not been a great few months, and I thought the momentum would have been greater than it has been. I think it really is true that when the police chased the activists out of the parks across this country, they took away a powerful campaign tool. I think that the tactic proved correct, which is that once the visibility of these sites was eliminated, the movement itself lost a tremendous amount of energy. I am worried: is there still that progressive voice that’s going to be heard? What’s going to happen? Maybe it is a breather, and we’re going to come back to it—I would suspect that that’s the case. I expect that there will be some kind of revival. I also believe that we should be thinking about a third-party movement for 2016, because I’m just not sure that either of the two entrenched parties really is going to break free of big money.
You make a point of teaching an undergraduate course almost every year. Why is this?
The issues that I love to talk about—and those are the issues of fighting poverty and combining economic development with environmental sustainability and thinking about new and creative ways to address climate change and related issues—are really the burning issues of our time, and I think they’re the issues that today’s incoming students are going to be grappling with for their whole lives. I wish I could say that it’s not quite the case, but unfortunately, my generation is leaving a kind of mess, and a big burden, and a big challenge for your generation. And it’s really important for today’s students to pick up this challenge, understand it, and start thinking about how the new generation is going to provide leadership in much more dynamic ways than the current generation has.
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