Sachs Says UN’s Development Goals Should Inspire Technologists

Columbia economist says ambitious international goals are needed to avert big crises in the world.

Establishing a set of hugely ambitious global goals that include ending extreme poverty by 2030 is “not hubris at all, it’s a matter of basic decency,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special advisor to the United Nations’ secretary general, at the opening keynote on the first day of Solve. Presenting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that were approved by the member countries of the United Nations on September 25 to the Solve audience, Sachs argued that agreeing on such goals “will make a difference” by focusing much-needed attention on the challenges.

Jeffrey Sachs on the Solve stage.
Jeffrey Sachs on the Solve stage.

The development goals focus on agriculture, “climate action,” “affordable and clean energy,” and other global needs. Sachs said that the upcoming U.N. climate change conference in Paris starting in November will be our “last chance” to keep global warming from human activity below 2 °C, though success at the meeting is still uncertain. Our current systems of agriculture are not sustainable and agriculture is on “the front line of climate change,” he warned. “It’s the first sector that gets hit.” To keep the global temperature rise below 2 °C, he added, will “be a heck of challenge.”

Another goal is to reduce inequalities, including the growing income gaps that have been worsened by advancing digital technologies. To that, he said, the most important solution is “universal access to quality education.” 

Still, Sachs pointed to recent successes. Globally, only about 10 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty; in Africa the number is down to 35 percent. “Technology has absolutely had a leading role,” he said. “Nothing has been as important as the mobile phone.”

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