Jeffrey Sachs on the SDGs


Pre-lecture gathering at UCD’s O’Reilly Hall

Yesterday University College Dublin presented the Ulysses medal for outstanding global contribution to Prof Jeffrey Sachs, a leading development expert from Columbia University. Prof. Sachs then gave an inspirational lecture on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (, along with a short Q&A.

Prof. Sachs was introduced by Prof. Paul Walsh, UCD’s Professor of International Development, who stressed that academia must work in partnership with government, civil society and private sector to achieve the SDGs. He discussed Prof. Sachs’ work with the UN on development economics and highlighted a quote from his book The End of Poverty: “markets cannot meet the needs of the desperately poor”.


Personalised SDG seats in O’Reilly Hall

After a brief introduction in which he stressed the role of Universities in achieving the SDGs, Jeffrey Sachs discussed what he identified as two distinct perspectives on economics:

  1. Society has the potential to produce anything – it has choices. This enables us to ask the question – what are our possibilities? e.g. could we “produce” a low carbon energy system, could we “produce” the end of poverty
  2. The market view –  the supply-demand equilibrium is the outcome of the economy. What happens is what producers and consumers want to happen, and the “invisible hand” is how resources are allocated. However, resources can be allocated in ways which result in outcomes such as poverty and pollution.

Prof. Sachs argued that we must engage with the first perspective and “remember what is possible, not just accept what is. We must ask what we should be doing to make life better for humans on the planet”. He urged us all to engage with our moral agency and not “get stuck as spectators”, remembering that the “true end goal” is human well-being, not property rights.

Prof. Sachs went on to argue that the SDGs are readily economically achievable, and our inability to achieve them is a “moral, psychological problem” rather than an economic problem. He used the example of SDG4 – Quality Education: the cost of every child in the world receiving a secondary education would be US$40 billion per annum, ostensibly a large amount. But if we add up the GDP of all the OECD nations, the total comes to c. US$50 trillion, of which the 40billion is a tiny 0.08%. Prof. Sachs noted that “we are constantly spending money on things we don’t need and yet to achieve the SDGs it would not cost more than 3% of our economy”. He added that we have 1800 billionaires in the world, who between them have US$700 trillion; arguing that “this could be done with 2000 people”.


Jeffrey Sachs speaks on the Sustainable Development Goals

In the Q&A session Prof. Sachs was first asked what he had learned from working on the UN’s Millenium Development Goals, which preceded the SDGs. He answered that “it’s hard to get the world’s attention on anything like this. Are we aware of these issues? We’re competing with a lot of things, with a lot of basketball games on television, with Kim Kardashian”. He also noted that there is a public scepticism that development aid might all be lost or misspent, stressing that we need systems that resist corruption.

Asked what Ireland must do to achieve the SDGs, his advice, which he had also highlighted earlier in his talk, was to “ask someone who knows…mobilise expertise and use it effectively”. Citing the need for renewable energy, he urged us to get experts to understand the problem, analyse it, and ask: what are the choices here? Economists can then be brought in to suggest policy e.g. carbon tax, electric taxi fleets. He also criticised Ireland’s sustainable development strategy as generic and not focused on problem-solving. We can judge for ourselves here:

Prior to the lecture UCD held an exhibition showcasing its development education courses, including the PhD in global development ( and the joint Masters in Development Practice with Trinity college, a course facilitated by 40 different universities around the world (

The UCD Centre for Humanitarian Action also featured and now runs a 16 month MSc. It provided us with the Irish Consultation to last year’s World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), for which it was the Secretariat. The consultation discusses six thematic areas (see below) and offers recommendations for the WHS and for the Irish Humanitarian community in relation to each area. There’s lots of info on the Centre’s website at


Irish Consultation to the World Humanitarian Summit 2015 – Contents