Universities better than governments at achieving SDGs

The task of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, are beyond the capabilities and interests of governments, which means universities around the world, including those in Africa, have a unique role to play, according to world-renowned economist Dr Jeffrey D Sachs.

Addressing the World Sustainability Forum held in Cape Town, South Africa, late last month, Sachs, who is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in the United States and senior United Nations advisor, said, in his view, achieving the SDGs would be impossible without the leadership role of the university sector.

"I do think the academic and university sector have a unique role to play; I do not believe the SDGs can be achieved without the university sector,” said Sachs.

The “convening power of universities” as well as their knowledge and expertise were essential, he argued, cautioning against losing the ‘sustainable development storyline’ to politicians at the expense of experts in universities.

“It’s not that they lack interest, but our government ministries lack technical know-how, they lack the knowledge, lack the fortitude... and evidence-based research to understand how they meet challenges like universal access to medical services, rapid scaling of education to secondary schools or how we incorporate information technologies into e-governance, e-finance and e-health," he said.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals which include to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”‚ as well as goals for addressing poverty, hunger and health, among others, were adopted as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by the United Nations in September 2015.

Sachs said Africa needs to prioritise six key investment areas in order to meet the targets of the 17 SDGs.

Lessons from China

Sachs said China's journey to industrial development could serve as a model for Africa in ending extreme poverty on the continent and becoming a key player in the world economy. China invested heavily across six fields: business capital, infrastructure, human capital, intellectual capital, social capital and financial capital, he said.

“These investments reduced extreme poverty in China from more than 80% in 1980 to roughly 5% today,” he said.

Apart from physical infrastructure, China invested heavily in health and education, the latter being one of the “key explanatory factors” behind its remarkable growth, particularly as modern technology now makes possible broad societal transformation within a relatively short period of time.

“I think this needs to be replicated in Africa and other places in the world where the challenge remains to overcome extreme poverty,” he said.

Drawing parallels with China during its economic boom, Sachs said its investment rates were roughly 40%-50% of its national income. His view is Africa needs to double its current saving and investment rates if it is to successfully achieve the SDGs.

"If Africa can substantially raise its investment rates across these six areas of investment and do so in an intelligent way, then Africa's overall economic growth rate could double from 5% per year to 10% per year."

Poverty would plummet, and these investments could be undertaken in a way that promotes social inclusion, especially by ensuring that every child has the chance for a decent, hopeful start, adequate nutrition, and quality education. “Nothing is more important to social inclusion than equal access to capital in all its forms," he said.

Sachs said although universities had the basic skills sets required to achieve the SDGs, institutions had to “learn by doing”. Even with a generous timeline of 15 years, countries have to be more organised and create teams of experts.

Nasty, tough world

“This is a nasty, tough world we live in, and our world agrees on very little. So when 193 governments agree on something… That is important.

“And when they agree on something as important as sustainable development, that is really something for us to grab hold of – that is a lifeline,” he said.

Sachs said the convening power of universities offered a neutral ground upon which government, the business sector, civil society and leading scientists could come together to brainstorm and to forge common cause.

Sachs called for a series of global funds to be established similar to the existing fund for malaria in the areas of education, health and energy.

A global education fund, for example, would help poor countries to expand universal education, get internet connectivity, water and sanitation and electricity in schools, he said.

Also urgent was the establishment of a global fund for health systems, especially community-based health delivery with information and communications technologies, and another fund for modern energy services.