Jeffrey Sachs: Mighty Nations With Petty Views Mount Walls Of Nationalist Isolation

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Jeffrey Sachs: Mighty Nations With Petty Views Mount Walls Of Nationalist Isolation

World-renowned economist and Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs calls for leaders to drop protectionism for cooperation to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals of eradicating poverty, inequality and environmental degradation. He speaks to Cynthia Ng during a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur.

“We are going in the right direction - but never fast enough, never focused enough,” says Jeffrey Sachs with a wry smile, when asked to assess the progress of United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

His sentiment is one that is increasingly shared globally as the SDGs - a blueprint approved by the 193 U.N. members in 2015 to tackle the world’s most pressing problems such as poverty and climate change, have not been addressed with a sense of urgency.

Unfortunately, too many politicians are paying attention only to themselves and not to the people they are supposed to serve

“Unfortunately, too many politicians are paying attention only to themselves and not to the people they are supposed to serve,” says the world-renowned economist during a visit to Sunway University, home to the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development - one of its four regional centre of excellence in the world.

Sachs, who regularly visits Kuala Lumpur, was here to teach the Jeffrey Sachs Center's Master in Sustainable Development Management. 

He views that the most powerful nations, which have the capacity to advance the 17 ambitious goals, are failing to lead the way to make good on their pledges, with SDG progresses made thus far risks unravelling due to a rising protectionism and a ‘me first’ attitude taken by certain countries.

“The nationalism is ill-timed in the sense that the challenges we are facing - migration, climate change, biodiversity challenges and the new information technology - these are all global phenomena.”

Nationalism Threatens Progress of Sustainable Development Goals

No country by itself can solve these issues, says Sachs, but some governments are distracted by ‘petty views’ and misplaced priorities, than addressing the real problems facing humanity.

“For instance, we can’t solve renewable energy problem unless we are trading renewable energy - transmitting solar or wind energy across national boundaries.”

Why are we thinking so much about breaking up cooperation than building it

“And creating a network of renewable energy requires the cooperation of our neighbours. So, why is Donald Trump talking about building a wall in Mexico rather than talking about shared energy with Mexico?”

“Why are we thinking so much about breaking up cooperation than building it? Because that’s what we really need to solve the problems we face,” he says.

The director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University views a lack of leadership globally as a key detriment to advancing the SDG goals.

“Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ is a very bad idea because any country that says ‘I come first, you come later’ is really creating tension and division - the whole approach is wrong,” he emphasises.

“There’s also the contagious effect where if you see a government stop being serious, others will then question the need to take it seriously too,” he says in regard to the SDGs.

Challenges in Forging Collaboration at the Global Scale

As Special Advisor to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Sachs travels the globe extensively, including poverty stricken countries, to advice policy makers, businesses and civil societies on solving humanitarian problems.

(He also served as advisor to former UN chiefs Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan.)

“There are two big things that I’m trying to do. One, help the poorest people in the world so that they can succeed.”

“Second, to achieve the cooperation at a global scale.”

“Both are hard (to achieve) because to help the poor, we require the rich to make contributions. But I often find that in the United States or in Europe, even the very rich people don’t want to contribute or participate.”

In his 2005 book ‘The End of Poverty’, Sachs argues that the developed world can help raise the poorest countries out of extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank as incomes of less than one dollar per day), through carefully planned development aid - in line with the U.N’s target to have developed nations commit 0.7 percent of their gross national income to foreign aid.

But the sobering reality is, unless there’s a move to put pressure on governments, and the private sector to act, the notion that the rich might voluntarily rise to the occasion aren’t usually that forthcoming.

“So, one part is to find the generosity and the compassion to help address the needs of people who have nothing - and that’s hundreds of millions of people in the world.”

“The other is to overcome our natural tendencies to say that ‘I’m right, he’s bad’, that all the other countries are misbehaving. This idea is wrong.”

“Of course, every country is looking out for its own security but it also needs to cooperate with others to solve problems. So, compassion and cooperation would be the two key elements for success. But, sometimes, they are very hard to find,” he says.

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