Jeffrey Sachs

Around 140 world leaders are arriving at the United Nations today and in the next few days for this week’s focus on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  The timing is crucial, as the MDGs have reached the halfway mark of the 15-year period from 2000 to 2015.  Monday’s sessions will focus on the MDGs in Africa while on Thursday the political leaders will take on the MDGs worldwide.

Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will highlight some great success stories, including the scaled-up war on malaria. He will also point to urgent areas where much more needs to be done, and fast, such as helping subsistence farmers to grow more food in Africa. The Secretary General’s Africa MDG Taskforce has identified a strategic roadmap for MDG success in Africa.

Throughout the week, dozens of special events with government leaders, policy makers, scientists, CEOs, and celebrities will highlight the proven investments and strategies that can overcome hunger, poverty, food and nutrition security, AIDS, malaria, water, climate change, and more.  The challenge is turning these strategic ideas and local successes into national, continental, and indeed global successes.  If the MDG week is successful, we should end it with a much clearer roadmap on how to “scale up” successful strategies to achieve the MDGs.

It’s easy to be cynical about grand challenges like the MDGs.  When world leaders assembled at the UN in September 2000 on the eve of the new millennium and adopted eight goals to fight poverty, hunger, disease, and deprivation by 2015, most of the leaders at the UN and those in public paying attention probably expected that the goals would sink out of sight by the next week’s news cycle.  Global goals are for photo ops, not for grown-ups, is a popular view of our cynical age.

Yet something has happened which brings world leaders back time and again to declare their commitment to the MDGs.  Part of it is the stark reality that 10 million children under the age of 5 die each year of extreme poverty.  Even the most hardened of cynics know that this stark fact is dangerous for our hopes for peace and stability, as well as for sustaining human values and quality of life on a crowded planet.

Part of the continued interest is the understanding that the MDGs are not fantasies but practically achievable objectives.  Measles deaths have been reduced by 91 per cent in Africa since 2000 through MDG-based initiatives.  Malaria deaths have plummeted in recent years in Rwanda, Sao Tome, Zanzibar, Ethiopia, Kenya, and other countries, because of the mass distribution of bed nets and effective medicines.  Food production has roughly doubled in Malawi because of an ingenious voucher program for seed and fertiliser for impoverished farmers.

A third reason for the MDG staying power is that poor people and their governments have taken seriously the call to fight poverty.  Throughout Africa, governments and NGOs have devised specific plans of action – to grow more food; train community health workers; extend coverage of medicines for AIDS, TB, malaria and other killers; pave roads; and install solar-power pumps for safe water and irrigation.  The plans have been made.  Special financing mechanisms like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria have been devised, and have proven their worth.

The laggards in the struggle for the MDGs are not the poor countries or their ostensibly corrupt governments.  The laggards are the rich world, so full of promises and high rhetoric and so low on delivery.  The MDGs are falling short because of a lack of promised financing to put in place the clinics, schools, roads, power, and other investments needed for their success.  Six years ago, the rich countries pledged in Monterrey, Mexico to “make concrete efforts toward the international target of 0.7 per cent of GNP in official development assistance.”  Yet the United States stands are 0.16 per cent, Japan at 0.17, Italy at 0.19, Canada at 0.28, Germany at 0.37, and France at 0.39.

In a week in which the US taxpayers will put out almost $1,000bn for a bank bailout and a year in which the US will spend $700bn on the military, it’s hard to credit the idea that the promised development aid is simply unaffordable. Wall Street bonuses in recent years, topping $30bn per year, have exceeded all of the world’s annual aid to Africa.  The shortfall in meeting the MDGs is not their great expense or their lack of feasibility.  It is, rather, the short-sighted choices we’ve been making in the rich world – to fight wars and to stuff the pockets of rich bankers, the ones who are looking for their own handouts this week.

The MDGs are still alive because they are vital to humanity and because they can still be achieved.  This week will determine whether the rich and the poor can find the common ground and the practical means for success that they promised the world eight years ago.

Bono and Jeffrey Sachs will begin blogging for FT.com from Monday afternoon, EST. In the meantime, here’s a Q&A between Alan Beattie, the FT’s trade editor, and Bono, carried out this weekend, ahead of the meetings.

AB: What is this week [and the Millennium Development Goals summit] all about?

Bono: Most of us woke up on New Year’s Day 2000 with a hangover and a hazy memory of a night of pleasant fanfare and dumb parade. However, the new millennium was also celebrated by our commitment to eight goals that would change the planet and demonstrate to the developing world how we might, through a combination of know-how and resources, partner with them in efforts to help millions out of desperate poverty. We gave ourselves 15 years, we’re halfway there. How do we measure up?

AB: What are the two or three goals you want to achieve this week?

Bono: 1. Blogging for the FT, being your roving reporter in the canyons of Manhattan. While the world upends on Wall Street, I’ll be mostly midtown at the UN and the Clinton Global Initiative talking about the resilience of the world’s poor while the world’s rich find out how fragile life can be.

2. Unlock €1bn of unspent European Union Common Agricultural Policy money. This year our farmers don’t qualify for it, food prices are high. African farmers desperately need it.

3. Show what’s working as well as what’s not. Bad news about Africa travels much farther than good news. There will be a historic and innovative announcement on malaria on Thursday – watch out for it. Thanks to debt relief, aid and African leadership, 29m more children are going to school.

AB: What will you actually be doing in the days ahead?

Bono: A sleepless cocktail of rabble-rousing, meetings with politicians, chief executives, faith leaders and NGOs. People such as Nicolas Sarkozy, President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and Gordon Brown.

AB: What exactly happens in the meetings you have with these world leaders?

Bono: Judo in a suit.

AB: Will people care about development amid an apparent collapse in the global financial system?

Bono: Lots of people will be focused elsewhere – understandably so. But it would be a huge mistake for us to ignore the strategic importance of the continent of Africa. China gets it, India gets it. The private sector too – it’s where the growth is. A partnership on development is not just heart, it’s smart.

AB: Many promises have been made and broken at summits over the years. Why is this one different?

Bono: Progress happens much more slowly than we’d like, but these summits are an opportunity to climb that bit higher and hold countries accountable for what they said they’d do. Certainly It’s not all doom and gloom.

AB: A lot of the emphasis at these summits is on the rich donor countries. Are developing countries also doing enough?

Bono: Some are, others are not. Those that are should get as much money as they can absorb, for example Ghana, Tanzania, Rwanda, Senegal, Mozambique. We’ve done a lot of work on the Millennium Challenge Account, a US programme that offers a big pot of money for governments that are stamping out corruption, making it easier to do business, investing in human capital.

AB: Are you concerned that the development debate is being reduced to a narrow focus on aid?

Bono: I hate talking about aid and, in my experience, so do Africans – they’re entrepreneurial by nature and want our trade more than our aid. But they need seed capital and some start-up infrastructure to get going. Needless to say, it’s hard to do business if you’re dead or dying. As things stand, aid when well spent is a critical source of investment.

AB: Is being a celebrity rock star a disadvantage when it comes to being taken seriously?

Bono: I get the absurdity. Taking yourself too seriously is the bigger mistake. Celebrity may open the door to the White House, Downing Street or the Elysée palace, but once we’re in the office they soon regret the invite if they’re just looking for a photo. We’re time-consuming and expensive to do business with.

AB: And finally – how much money have you personally lost so far in the Wall Street turmoil?

Bono: I’m OK. I’m not super careful, but I’ve always tried not to be stupid about money. It’s a serious business – especially if you don’t have any.

The MDG blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Bono and Jeffrey Sachs blog for FT.com from the Millennium Development Goals summit and surrounding meetings in New York

Bono is lead singer of U2 and co-founder of the One campaign

Jeffrey Sachs is a development economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University

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