Interview: Prof Jeffrey Sachs on empowering ‘the poorest of the poor’

One of the world’s most influential economists, Prof Jeffrey Sachs, will be talking about co-operatives and sustainable development at the 2014 International Summit of Cooperative in Quebec. With negotiations on...

One of the world’s most influential economists, Prof Jeffrey Sachs, will be talking about co-operatives and sustainable development at the 2014 International Summit of Cooperative in Quebec. With negotiations on climate change, fair financing and the Sustainable Development Goals underway, Prof Jeffrey Sachs thinks the international development agenda is more packed than any year in recent history.

The world-renowned economist who advises the United Nations Secretary-GeneralBan Ki-moon, on the Millennium Development Goals will highlight the realities facing the world and the way in which co-operatives can contribute to the post-2015 development framework.

“I’m going to be talking about this critical year ahead for the world to choose the path of sustainable development”, he said. Prof Sachs has been an economist at Harvard University for more than 20 years and director of the school’s Center for International Development.

In his New York Times bestselling book, The End of Poverty: How We Can Make it Happen in Our Lifetime, Jeffrey Sachs argues that extreme poverty can be ended by 2025. For him, the end of poverty is not only the end of extreme suffering but also the beginning of economic progress.

Prof Sachs is an adept of clinical economics, which he describes as doing economic development with the same precision and attention as science, but with ethical standards. As director of the Earth Institute at the University of Colombia, he has been involved in the Millennium Villages Project, a ten-year programme aimed at ending extreme poverty and meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

The project, which includes 500,000 people in 14 different sites in 10 African countries, is delivered in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme and Millennium Promise.

“We work with tremendous numbers of co-ops and helped start many co-ops in Africa,” said Prof Sachs. As part of the Millennium Villages Project, the Earth Institute has supported the writing of business plans, developing the skills of local managers and entrepreneurs, fostering value chain development and attracting local service providers.

Asked whether co-ops have played an important role in helping to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, Jeffrey Sachs said: “In the places we’ve been working in Africa, yes, no doubt about it.”

The Millennium Villages Project proposes an integrated strategy that is goal-based and covers agriculture, health and infrastructure. This complex approach involved tackling different problems that are interconnected at the same time.

One of the key objectives of the Millennium Villages Project is to empower farmers and enable them to diversify production and gain access to the market. This also included linking farmers and farmer organisations to financial institutions, including saving and credit co-operatives (SACCOs), to enable them to secure loans.

Prof Sachs explained how co-operatives under the Millennium Villages Project are critical in enabling “the poorest of the poor” to raise themselves out of poverty by giving them a stake in the marketplace.

“In the areas of community-based development, small holder farmers’ escape from poverty, technological upgrading and fairness of enterprise, co-ops play an important role,” he said, adding that co-operatives were also crucial to empowering women.

He gave the example of an artisan co-operative in Mayange, Rwanda. Founded in 2008 with support from the Millennium Villages Project, the knitting co-op has enabled 74 women to build a better life for themselves and their families. They received training and equipment from the Millennium Villages Project. As members of the co-operative, knitters can earn more than what they could through casual labour.

Apart from food security, poverty eradication and women empowerment, co-ops are also contributing to the transition to promoting environmental sustainability. One of the key areas where co-ops are making a difference is rural electrification.

“In the USA many of the electrical utilities are co-ops and we are using the same approach in Africa”, said Jeffrey Sachs. In Mwandama, Malawi, nearly 1,000 solar lanterns were sold as part of the Millennium Villages Project LED lantern program.

The initiative helped introduce cost-effective and high-quality technologies that provide light and a source of power. Vendors and co-operatives also received training to support the commercialisation of the program. Projects to extend the electricity grid and develop solar micro-grid systems were also implemented in Millennium Villages.

The Millennium Villages Project will be completed next year when the results of the programme will be assessed. While some critics argue that development aid can create a culture of dependency among some states, Jeffrey Sachs thinks this is not the case when aid is used for high quality investment to help the people raise themselves out of poverty.

“Aid should be investment that leads communities and countries out of poverty, not leaves them in poverty but with hand-outs,” he said.

Delegates at the International Summit of Cooperatives will hear more about Prof Sachs’ approach to development aid as well as and on how co-operatives could stand out in the transition to a sustainable economy.

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