The Rich Countries Are Leaving the Poor for Dead: Jeffrey Sachs on the Millennium Development Goals

Extreme poverty is a hard thing to conceptualize until you see it first hand. I had been to poverty stricken countries throughout my life and I had seen what I thought was extreme poverty. But it wasn't until I travelled throughout West and Central Africa in 2010, that I truly understood what extreme poverty meant. I travelled to the poorest countries in the region, vising communities that had no running water, no electricity, no access to education and health care. The experience had a profound effect on me, as it does to the majority of people that visit the poorest countries in the world, you leave the experience with a deep sense of responsibility that you have to do something to give back, to help change the lives of those that are less fortunate. While many commit to take action, some do more than most.

One such person is Jeffrey Sachs, the world-leading economist, who travelled to sub-Saharan Africa for the first time in 1995 and from that experience decided to devote his life to the eradication of extreme poverty.

Sachs, amongst his many efforts, became special adviser to the United Nations Secretary General on the Millennium Development Goals (the MDGs as they are commonly referred to). The MDGs were established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000; all 189 United Nations member states committed to fulfilling eight internationally sanctioned objectives, with 21 targets, that would rid the world of extreme poverty by the year 2015.

The goals, according to Sachs, were a breakthrough in international development because they gave a holistic vision of extreme poverty. Previously, the World Bank had measured poverty in terms of income; you considered a person's income and if it was below a certain number you were considered poor. The MDG's took an alternate approach defining poverty not by income, but by a person's ability to meet their basic needs; do they have food security; are the children in school; do they have the ability to fight diseases like AIDs, TB, Malaria; do they have access to clean water; do the women have maternal health. The goals outlined the basic human rights for every individual in this world.

For the past fifteen years the United Nations worked with Governments and stakeholders to meet the objectives of the MDG's and in four months time the goals will expire. While much progress has been made, the sobering reality is that the targets wont be met. Why? In Sachs' opinion "the rich countries are letting the poor countries down. Meeting the MDG's isn't just a matter of willpower, it was a matter of investment", says Sachs, "It's a matter of schools, and clinics, and healthcare workers, and teachers, and information technology and this doesn't just come for free."

According to Sachs the financial shortfall was there from the beginning. In his interview he discusses a meeting in Monterrey, Mexico in March 2002 called the Conference on International Finance for Development. At this meeting Governments committed to raise development assistance significantly. A commitment was made by developed nations to commit 0.7% of their gross national income to foreign aid. According to Sachs, the majority of Government's never followed through with their commitments. In fact, Sachs' is of the view that Government's made false promises that they never intended to fulfil. He quoted a very senior official that said the commitment was 'just political talk' and that they never had any intention of delivering on it.

Sachs doesn't accept the cynicism, because the truth of the matter is that Government's, with the right leadership and financial commitment, can address extreme poverty. Money, unsurprisingly, remains the chief downfall of the MDGs. If the financial commitment was there, these goals could have been met.

Despite his experiences of skepticism and false promises over the past 15 years, Sachs still believes that the world can put an end to extreme poverty. Echoing one of his earlier speeches, the reality is "either you decide to leave people to die or you decide to do something about it." As we move to this post-2015 agenda, to the Sustainable Development Goal era, Sachs' call to action is to spread the word, to move the issue of global poverty into the mainstream, and to put pressure on our Government's to take the necessary action.

This interview is part of the One on One series in partnership with the UN MDG Advocacy Group and Global Citizen.