This is a series from our writers Holly Narey and Michelle Gonzalez Amador who are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ online course The Age of Sustainable Development. They will be sending out an update on the course every week. Click here for more on all our writers. Check this tag to see all posts on this topic.

Gini coefficients 2006: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, through the medium of the internet, we again joined Professor Sachs in the large, airy room from which he gives his lectures for the second instalment of the course. Whilst the previous session gave a detailed yet accessible introduction to the key challenges faced in sustainable development, along with some basic technical concepts, this week things were taken a step further. The focus in this second session was economic development and income inequalities, and the influence this has on wellbeing across the globe.

There has also been an impressive growth in social interaction between participants in the course, with some discussion forums reaching upwards of a thousand posts. Contributors can be seen introducing and debating key development topics all over the world. There are over fifty different threads with participants looking for local study groups, with locations ranging from Toronto, to Nairobi, Valencia, and Manchester. The global reach of the course can be seen, and hopefully over the coming weeks more people will join the Google hangouts and forums, and will continue to be educated in what is truly a modern way to learn.

Sachs appears to have a knack for discussing the greatest issues the planet faces in a calm, cool way, making them sound like any other problem that requires a solution. The story he tells about the state of inequality across the globe is interspersed with case studies, statistics and potentially intimidating terms and concepts, but he outlines them clearly, making them easy to grasp.

The fallibility of various methods of income and wellbeing measurement were highlighted in this session. While GDP per capita can give an insight into the overall productivity of a country, it does not necessarily reflect the standard of living of the population. Especially important to note is that it does not take into account important factors such as healthcare and social inclusion, however it is a good starting point from which to build. We were introduced to the classification of countries that examining GDP per capita allows us to make: low, middle and high income countries, with around one billion people living in low income countries across the globe. Of these, 48 countries stand apart due to social instability, low education levels and susceptibility to droughts, disease and violence. These are the Least Developed Countries, several being in Asia and tropical Africa, and with landlocked countries and small island nations also cropping up more frequently than their total number would suggest.

We were introduced to the complex process of attempting to compare different incomes across the globe, and to normalise them taking into account the variation in purchasing power that this money would have within these different countries.

Professor Sachs then discussed the issue of urban and rural inequality, along with the current worldwide trend towards urbanisation, with around 70% of the global population expected to live in urban areas by 2030. This brought to light the growing importance of both urban sustainability and agricultural efficiency.

Income inequality within countries was then discussed, using the Gini coefficient as a tool to measure income distribution within a country. Examples of countries with comparatively healthy (low) Gini coefficients are Sweden, Norway and Denmark, whereas some with with higher Gini coefficients and therefore more inequality within the country are seen in much of the Americas, and in some African countries. These variations in income equality were explained using historical case studies, such as in the case of the Americas, where European settlers displaced local people to establish large landholdings, which have been passed down the generations and led to a more affluent class.

Sachs then went on to explain how the solutions to problems of inequality are often contentious, with the individual interests of those with the greater share of the country’s wealth, and often therefore a greater share of the power, using trade and globalisation to increase their wealth while the poor get poorer.

Wellbeing was another key topic, especially the individual perception of one’s own wellbeing, with factors such as social inclusion, honest governments, and values of compassion and generosity being credited for increased feelings of wellbeing alongside income.

The Human Development Index was introduced as a more holistic measure, attempting to assess quality of life independent of GDP per capita.

The week’s session was concluded with the importance of the understanding of convergence and divergence between different economies, with convergence being a key aim in global development. This was an area where, while it is important to take into account the “doom and gloom” of the global situation, it is clear that there are real potentials for improvement, and where improvements have been seen, such as in Scandinavia.

Apart from the lectures, the resources on offer are extensive, and give an opportunity to go further than what is discussed.

The chapters of the coursebook provided for download in weekly instalments gives thorough background information, and provide figures used in the lectures and more.


The Age Of Sustainable Development: Income inequality


Jeffrey Sachs Answered Questions On Reddit, Here Are The Highlights

Recently, the online community of Reddit provided us with yet another great opportunity to question one of today’s top minds in a social-convention-free zone. On January 15th, Jeffrey Sachs took part in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session where hundreds of Reddit users were able to ask him educated and insightful questions about his work, beliefs, and opinions.

If you’re wondering what Sachs could possibly be doing on Reddit, or what Reddit even is, be sure to check out this great article by Rowan Emslie which should help to clear that up.

Part of Sachs’ motivation for doing the AMA was likely to promote his upcoming free online university course ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’. This 14-week course begins on January 21, and if your interested you can learn more or register for it here. Sachs encouraged many of those participating in the AMA to take the course and “join the generation-long quest to achieve sustainable development”.

For those of you who may not have the time to read this entire (rather long) article, here are some of the main takeaways from the AMA:

  • The importance of public health and environmental sustainability dominated the discussion
  • Sachs stood adamantly behind his views about foreign aid (as expected)
  • He often used the AMA as a vehicle to help plug his main causes and give them more exposure

Over the course of the AMA, Sachs also expressed his opinion on some topics you may have not expected, including the recently leaked draft of the TPP´s (Trans-Pacific Partnership) Environment Chapter, how automation and robotics will affect development, and even Sachs’ favourite novels. While these were definitely interesting insights, below I will focus mainly on recapping the main themes and top comments for anyone who missed the AMA.

What is Sustainable Development?

“We’ll discuss that at length in class. I am using the term “Sustainable Development,” meaning a holistic approach that combines economic, social, and environmental goals.”

Enough said. 

Global Health as the Key to Development

Public health and economic development have always been key components of Sachs’ policy and academic work. He makes it no secret that he views global health as the first stepping stone towards development.

Prioritizing development goals:

“I’d start with the health goals, since those are life and death. And then (or simultaneously) the hunger goal (obvious reason) and then education. Of course once people are alive and properly nourished, education becomes the KEY!”

On strategies to end poverty while increasing sustainable development:

“I think that the key to ending poverty and increasing sustainable development is “investment-led growth,” with investments in people (health, nutrition, education, training), plus investments in infrastructure (such as low-carbon energy), plus investments in “smart” systems using information technologies.”

The Great Aid Debate

As a champion of foreign aid and constant presence in the great aid debate, it was inevitable that the effectiveness of aid would be questioned and that some of Sachs’ top critics would come up in the discussion.

On Dambisa Moyo:

“Unlike Dambisa Moyo, I believe that aid is needed and can be organized effectively and respectfully. I am very happy with the successful scale up of aid for public health in the past decade. It has saved millions of lives and helped to promote economic development.”

Describing his relationship with William Easterly (with a passive aggressive smiley):

“There are days when I’m happier and days when I’m less happy. We’re colleagues and friends, but sometimes I’m simply amazed (and not happy) when he declares that “aid has failed.” This is simply NOT RIGHT!!! :-)”

On ‘The Great Escape’ by Angus Deaton:

“I did not agree with his very blanket statements against aid. In my view, such statements are contrary to the evidence. When somebody declares so categorically that all aid fails, raise your doubts. Such generalizations are not accurate. Much aid is very important. We need to understand why some aid succeeds and other aid fails, so that we can improve the design of aid programs.”

The Millennium Villages Project

The Millennium Villages Project has become one of Sachs’ most controversial endeavours, and has been the source of heavy criticism. This contentious debate arose following the first independent evaluation of one of the villages, and erupted in a series of online articles and duelling editorials. This past September, the commentary resurfaced with the release of Nina Munk’s book The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Despite this, Sachs is quick to challenge any criticism and stands firmly behind his project.

Sachs’ response to those who criticize the Millennium Villages Project:

“The project has had enormous positive impacts, way beyond the villages themselves. Governments have taken the successes of the villages as a basis for national policy, e.g. the control of malaria and the scale up of community health workers. There were originally 10 countries in the program, but its so useful for governments that the program is now operating directly or indirectly (through policy advice for example or as a template) in 23 countries. Please see By the way, there will be a comprehensive evaluation of the project, and a comparison with other places nearby, in 2015, to be reported in 2016. It will be interesting for all, including of course the project participants, to learn from these results!”

On the Millennium Villages Post-2015:

“The MVs will be evaluated at the end of 2015, and we will make course corrections and improvements as needed in several national programs underway to scale up the MV model. So the basic notion of using community-based rural development will continue past 2015, for sure. It’s working in many powerful ways, but will have even clearer evidence in 2015 on many important detailed issues.”

The Global Fund

In 2000, Sachs worked with then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to design and launch the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria and has worked to support the organization ever since. Last month, Sachs called to task many developed countries for failing to come up with the necessary $5 billion to maintain the momentum of the Fund. He continued his campaign to gain support for the Fund through his AMA.

On using empirical studies to evaluate aid programs:

“We need to be smart in our aid policies, using knowledge, experience, and EXPERTISE outside of economics (such as in public health). The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and GAVI are examples of aid success. We should measure and evaluate programs, but use methods that are appropriate to the circumstances. There is too much of a one-size-fits-all strategy to evaluation these days (too much on randomized trials, excluding other means of evaluation).”

On the continuation of the Global Fund agenda:

“The Global Fund is still trying to close the $5 billion. I’ll be speaking with several governments over the next few weeks as well to help close the deal. The name of the game is PERSISTENCE. It takes time to convince governments!!!”

On getting governments to work in the interest of their people:

“I believe that aid can be designed in ways that promote accountability and transparency. This is how the Global Fund has worked most of the time. It’s been a good and successful model. Yes, we should promote a high degree of transparency. Remember that much of the corruption starts from the side of the rich countries and their companies.”

Throughout the AMA, Sachs maintained his idealistic persona and most of his responses had an upbeat tone to them. While he frequently spoke about the success of his projects, he often rebuffed any commenter who brought up critiques of his work. One thing that I found particularly interesting was that Sachs often lumped those who disagreed with his work into the same category as those who simply didn’t ‘understand’ or ‘get’ his work and ideas. A little condescending don’t you think? That being said, what really shined through for me was Sachs’ talent as a campaigner, as it’s undeniable that he is quite effective at garnering support and drawing attention to his principle causes.

So what did you think of Sachs’ AMA? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section below!

Editor’s Note: Two of our new writers – Michelle Gonzalez Amador and Holly Narey – are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ new online course and will be blogging about their experience. We’ll be using the tag ‘Age of Sustainable Development’ for all these posts so check back on that in the coming weeks for more.