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Jeffrey Sachs on the new Sustainable Development Goals: Changing Asia

Video | 10 August 2015

Economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability are the three tenets underpinning the forthcoming post-2015 development agenda, a once in a generation opportunity to put mankind on the path to a sustainable growth model, says Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute.


Title: New Sustainable Development Goals

Description: Economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability are the three tenets underpinning the forthcoming post-2015 development agenda, a once in a generation opportunity to put mankind on the path to a sustainable growth model, says Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute.

Jeffrey Sachs
Director of the Earth Institute

Q: What us the biggest development challenge facing Asia and the Pacific?
A: The Asia-Pacific region, which is the heart of world, you know it’s 60% of the world’s population . It’s going to be the center of gravity of the world economy in the 21st century.  Unlock the secret, more or less of the economic growth in the past 50 years and specially in the past quarter century. How to get children healthy and in school, learning enough so that they could become productive parts, members of the economy and of society, bringing in capital, and upgrading technology, putting all the pieces together. And this has led to tremendous economic development in the Asia-Pacific region of course varying in different parts of the region but still overall spectacular from a historical perspective.

But the growth has not been sustainable development because this region achieved great economic growth but at huge environmental cost and in ways that are not sustainable for the future. The Asia-Pacific region is emitting half of the world’s greenhouse gases more or less and that’s a lot, too much for a safe planet. And Asia-Pacific itself is incredibly vulnerable to rising sea levels, more extreme hydrometeriological disasters like tropical cyclones, heat waves, droughts. This is a mega diverse region in biodiversity and yet its subjected to massive deforestation, pollution and so on.  All in all, Asia now needs in this generation to say, “Well, we understand economic growth but now we need the holistic framework that is economic growth widely shared narrowing rather than widening the income inequalities and with technologies and behavior and organization that is environmentally sustainable.”

Now, I’m happy to say that there’s recognition that is widespread that such an approach is needed, that’s why we have Sustainable Development Goals. But what’s also true and as an economist I can only underscore this, the momentum I call it the juggernaut of our current economic system is so powerful. People know what to do, what they’re doing now but more that we could absolutely wreck the environment before we really get hold of the reins and turn this juggernaut in a safer direction. So we have to think very hard with these new Sustainable Development Goals, how they’re to be achieved.

Q: How do you assess the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals?
A: I think the Millennium Development Goals achieved something quite hard to achieve and that is to put attention on the world’s poorest people. The MDGs did achieve their core purpose, which was to direct attention, resources and policies to help the poorest of the poor and thereby bring down the poverty rate which has come down on line by more than half during the MDG period. The goal was to cut the poverty rate by half from 1990 through 2015 that standard was achieved by 2010. We’re going to have much more than they’re having on extreme poverty and the Millennium Development Goals certainly made a contribution in that regard.

Q: Will the complexity of the new post-2015 agenda pose problems for developing countries?
A: The Sustainable Development Goals are indeed complex and they are universal. Rather than the fight against extreme poverty in low income countries this is a fight for sustainable development in all economies, rich and poor alike. When the 193 members states adopt the Sustainable Development Goals on September 25th, they’re adopting those goals for their own countries.

Everywhere - the United States, European Union, Japan, the richest countries have to make major changes in their energy systems for example to avoid the catastrophe of the runaway human induced climate change. This is not a simple agenda, sustainable development means a holistic framework that embraces three goals, not only one: economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. For most countries, it’s hard enough to achieve one of the three, but now the idea is to achieve three out of three by taking an integrated strategy.

I think the Sustainable Development Goals are important because they tell governments you have to think differently, you have to get organized differently, you need to make plans. Many governments these days don’t make plans, their plan is to the next election perhaps but what the Sustainable Development Goals say you have to think ahead a generation – what’s going to happen with the energy system, what’s going to happen with the quality of education, what’s going to happen with health care. And governments are going to have to get organized to pursue ambitious stretched goals for the year 2030.

Q: What should be done to promote the new post-2015 development agenda?
A: Back in 2001 then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, called me. He said, “Jeff, please come help with the new Millennium Development Goals.” I was of course thrilled and honored and I immediately said yes, moved from Harvard to Columbia University to New York, to work at the university and also at the United Nations. As soon as I did, many people came up to me and said, “Millennium Development Goals, why are you focusing on that? Who cares? What difference could it make? Scrap, piece of paper, empty promises, photo op but nothing more than that.”

There was a lot of doubt and fair bit of cynicism about what those goals could mean. Now, I don’t think they became the fair of everyday discussion in most parts of the world, although in a few places they did get a lot of discussion but in a lot of places they got some discussion and they help focus attention much more longevity than people guessed back in 2000, 2001. The cynics were wrong the Millennium Development Goals did resonate with the public once they heard about it. They liked the idea, we should fight poverty that’s good for our souls and it’s good for our society, it’s good for our economy, it makes the world safer, and so people rallied.

Now with the Sustainable Development Goals, I think we’re in even better shape because with the MDGs, they were just in the sense put to world leaders by Kofi Annan in 2000. They voted for them but there have been little preparation for them in way as a package. With the Sustainable Development Goals the decision was taken in June 2012 that Sustainable Development Goals should be adopted as of 2015. Indeed there have been 3 years of negotiation at the United Nations about what the goals should be? The list started in 100s, got down to 17, which is still a big number but at least a well defined list of Sustainable Development Goals right now. I think public awareness and education is at the essence. And since that need for public awareness is understood there are efforts around the world to make a jumpstart on that. Sustainable development is exciting, it’s crucial but it’s not easy.  It’s pretty tricky to have all these objectives together and to be expected to meet not just one or two goals but 17 goals. We need new data systems, new ways of planning, new ways of thinking, new ways to diffuse best practices across countries. It’s a great agenda. I think a lot of young people around the world are going to be excited to be a part of it. They’re going to come up with a lot of breakthrough ideas.

Q: What will be ADB’s role in the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals?
A: ADB is the preeminent financial institution for the Asia-Pacific region so ADB should look at the Sustainable Development Goals and say, “Yes, this is our core responsibility to help our member states achieve those Sustainable Development Goals.” ADB has a unique analytical capacity that has regional reach. It has data that it collects and been analyzing for decades of how the systems work. It convenes meeting and of course it gives loans on actual projects. So, ADB in my view should look at the Sustainable Development Goals and say, “Yes that defines the coming generation of purpose of the bank and also of our region. We need to achieve sustainable development in Asia.” The Sustainable Development Goals now give us a pathway and we have to make sure our lending, our strategy, our national strategies, our regional strategies, our analytics are all geared towards success of sustainable development.