The Man with a Plan
Adam Panetta talks to Jeffrey Sachs about millennium development goals and extreme poverty
Twice-named one of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World," Special Advisor to two UN Secretary Generals, author of New York Times bestsellers The End of Poverty and Common Wealth, Jeffrey Sachs has also ruffled a few feathers at The World Bank and the IMF. But even Sachs' strongest critics cannot question his sincerity and devotion to making the world a better place. Recently, Adam Panetta sat down with Professor Sachs at The Earth Institute to discuss Bangladesh, the Millennium Development Goals and the idea that extreme poverty can be eradicated by 2025.
What is extreme poverty and how does it differ from simply being 'very poor'?
JS (Jeffrey Sachs): When I think of extreme poverty, I think of the inability of an individual or family or community to meet its basic needs reliably. What are the basic needs? The first is to be able to stay alive, [followed by] adequate food supply, the availability of emergency health care [and] a livelihood that is reliable. And in the context of Bangladesh, also safety from natural hazards because, as a country that is completely vulnerable to flooding and other water disasters, extreme storms, failure of monsoons and everything that can go wrong with water, Bangladesh knows about it very well. That's also part of extreme poverty. If every day there's a challenge of survival because a flood can carry a home, a village, a community, a family away: that to my definition is part of what extreme poverty entails.
So Bangladesh is an extraordinarily vulnerable country. This is no secret. With a population of 150 million and rising crowded into a lowland delta that is still predominantly agricultural and highly vulnerable to every kind of natural hazard: availability of water, too much water, droughts, floods, storms, dangers of groundwater and so on, climate change is just another added dimension of tremendous complexity and tremendous risk.
Aside from moral claims that "it's the right thing to do," why is eradicating extreme poverty in Bangladesh's, let alone the world's interest?
JS: I think extreme poverty is first of all a shame of modern society: it's an anachronism. If we were in the 17th Century it would be understandable as everyone was in poverty. We're in the 21st Century, with the tools, the technology, the know-how, the knowledge to enable everyone to meet their basic needs. So I can't answer that question in a certain sense because I don't fully understand that question. To me, it's an obvious matter. What is an economy for if it's not ensuring that everybody can survive, be healthy and prosper? That, to me, is the starting point of an economy.
I try to explain to them [skeptics] how little it would take to empower impoverished people to break free of their extreme poverty. So this is not some great struggle where those who don't have are going to pull down those who do, which is one of the fears, I think, that people have.
And then one can explain all the so-called instrumental reasons why living in a society that is divided between those who can barely survive and those who have more than enough or a world society like that is not only a tragedy, it's a huge mistake. Poverty breeds instability. Poverty creates the fulminant conditions for disease transmission. Poverty breeds political unrest and upheaval. Poverty breeds [the] mass migration of people, which is a thankless fact for those who are moving and sometimes for those who are receiving environmental refugees or displaced people from violence. And so my view is, in an interconnected world, not only does it stand to reason that in a world where there's enough money to solve these basic problems easily and readily we should do it, but we should appreciate the fact that everybody's well being is at stake when you have people who are struggling for their very survival. I always think back to John Kennedy's words in his inaugural address, the famous words that "if society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich," and that was an admonition to the rich in America. What are we thinking if we're not actively involved in helping to solve poverty in other places?
You operate at two very different levels: one being the macroscopic world of billion-dollar budgets and global financial flows, the other dominated by more local issues like the procurement of malaria nets and access to safe drinking water for small rural villages. What is the relationship between these two very different areas of involvement?
JS: The essence of overcoming extreme poverty is a global movement and a global network which reaches from the villages to political leaders around the world and back again. The life of the poor is, of course, in their communities and solutions are largely going to be found in those communities but people stuck in extreme poverty need help. They need help to be empowered to find the solutions or to take the solutions that they know exist but can't afford on their own. And that's why there needs to be a partnership movement between those who are living, struggling with the realities and those who have the means to help empower them out of the poverty trap.
But then simply to say "let them solve their problems" or "we'll tell them what to do" is pretty useless often because [extreme poor] people often know just what to do and they're so disempowered, they're so poor, they lack assets, they lack voice, they lack representation that they can't do these things on their own so the connections are a crucial solution to this.
A return to democratic government in Bangladesh has raised hopes and expectations across the board. What is the government's responsibility in tackling extreme poverty and how does that fit in with the work presently being carried out by NGOs?
JS: In any society--including my ownwhat is really needed is not government versus the NGO community, but government and the NGO community and the private sector. It's always three ways and it's the healthy balance among private sector, government and civil society which makes for a robust and free society to begin with.
Now the NGO community can accomplish certain things. It can accomplish awareness; it's proven that it can accomplish some basic services. It can accomplish introducing new approaches into communities that it has pioneered and then spread worldwide, like microfinance. But without government, one will not have a fully functioning public health system, that's for sure. You cannot make a public health system on the back of NGOs. I don't believe you can make an education system on the back of NGOs. And I'm sure you cannot make a proper power grid, a proper water and sewerage system, a proper road network, a proper climate resiliency and larger scale environmental management system based on community NGO activity.
And so the upshot is that the NGOs are vital for what they do but they are not a substitute for government, they are a complement of government. It should be a healthy relationship. It's also fine when there's some competition" who can do the services better?" there is no problem with that. But we absolutely need government for core functions. And the core functions, as I've mentioned, are infrastructure, the power grid, the water and sewerage systems, the road network, the port and airport systems, the communications network, although some of that is private sector. We need government for a proper public health system in the country. We need government to reach excluded populations, minority groups, populations living in more remote areas that absolutely will remain isolated and impoverished unless there's concerted help. So this has to be a system that engages civil society, that engages government and engages the private sector.
Speaking of active solutions, what role do the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) stand to play in the eradication of extreme poverty and why are they important?
JS: The importance of the MDGs is that they are quantified, time-bound targets and putting them front and center opens everybody's eyes because [then] you have specific goals, something more than saying "we want to end poverty" or "we want children to survive" that's all fine, but those are sentiments. Those are not the bases for strategy or planning for specific investments whereas the MDGs say "by the year 2015, maternal mortalities shall be reduced by three quarters compared to the 1990 baseline".
And the reason I like these goals is that when you start asking that question, then you get specific because whether it's nutrition interventions, whether it's early childhood development programs, whether it's emergency obstetrical rooms available for women in complicated labor or hemorrhaging, you get down to specifics. Then you draw the map and say "who has access to these services and who doesn't have access? Why don't they have access? Oh, because we can't afford it in these places. Well, maybe we can't afford it but Europe can afford it for Bangladesh or the United States can afford it for Bangladesh and the World Bank can afford it for Bangladesh. So let's get serious." And that's the partnership.
Are the MDG targets realistic and achievable? Where is the bridge between this global policy set forth by the United Nations and poor rural villages in remote areas of Bangladesh or Ghana?
JS: This world has enough to ensure that extreme poverty is ended. Now the MDGs don't even go that far. They say let's cut extreme poverty by half by 2015; I say let's finish extreme poverty by 2025. This world absolutely can accomplish this. I've done the dollars-and-cents calculations enough times and have looked at the specific things that can be done. So I say to the government [of a developing country], get your plans in shape, take seriously these goals, stand up for your country and stand up for the poor people in the country. You really are their voice. I do say to the poor people, as much as they can in the midst of all of their travails, to take on their local leadership in their communities and make demands of the national government to make demands also internationally as needed. We need a clinic, we need a school, we need electricity, we need an all-weather road. Those are the basics of what's going to get a community out of extreme poverty. Livelihoods, health, education, basic infrastructure, basic business development: those are the five things, in my view, which achieve the MDGs. And every community needs its own organization: it can do something, the national government can do something. Then the international partners have their role to play.
In The End of Poverty, you maintain that there is no "magic bullet" and in the same vein, through your Millennium Villages Project you've promoted a more holistic village-level approach to tackling extreme poverty. Can you tell me about that?
JS: Others [some aid agencies] say "well we're just in favor of girls' education" and I say yes, but if the girls are walking to collect water for several hours a day or if the girls are ill or if there are no hygienic facilities for them or if they're sick with malaria, you're not going to get the girls education. Some people say "oh yes, but the key is something else." Everybody has their list of the "one thing" but life doesn't come like that. Life comes in a package where we better attend to the ability to eat, the ability to have safe water, the ability to be part of a market economy, which means a road, which means transport, which means electricity. And so my view is not the magic bullet, but I'd say the checklist, which is to make sure that the basics are fulfilled and you can identify who needs to do those things: the community in some ways, the government in some ways, private sector will fill in some of the blanks, microfinance can do it. Work through that checklist and if you don't have a clinic, you're not going to escape from extreme poverty. If you don't have a school there, you're not going to escape from extreme poverty. If you don't have electricity there, you're not going to escape from extreme poverty. So you better be sure, you need a plan and that's the essence of the Millennium Villages approach.
If you could deliver a message to all Banglade-shis, what would that message be?
JS: Poverty in its extreme form can be ended by our generation, by the year 2025 and Bangladesh can be a leader in that it's innovated in so many ways. Extreme poverty means deprivation in all its forms. It means social exclusion. It means children who are undernourished and stunted. It means mothers dying in childbirth. It means unattended infectious disease. It means children not going to school and therefore not becoming the productive leaders of the next generation. It means people that are hungry and it means societies that are too vulnerable to natural hazards and environmental threats. So to end extreme poverty means to address these issues in their holistic manner. You have wonderful leaders, people who have pioneered these issues for the whole world and I want you to know that in my capacity as Special Advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, I am completely committed to working together with you. I want Bangladesh to meet the Millennium Development Goalsall of themand then to look ahead an extra decade, to the year 2025, when extreme poverty is eliminated from Bangladesh.
The views expressed are those of the author and in no way reflect the views of their employers.
Adam Panetta is the Media and Communication Manager at shiree.