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Renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs says he's disappointed by Canada's progress on the Millennium Development Goals. (Jimmy Jeong for The Globe and Mail)
Renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs says he's disappointed by Canada's progress on the Millennium Development Goals. (Jimmy Jeong for The Globe and Mail)

Canada chided for 'lack of interest' in world's poor Add to ...

A lack of will from the world's wealthiest countries, including Canada, is responsible for the looming failure to meet an ambitious set of antipoverty goals, according to an influential adviser to the United Nations.

Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia University who counsels the UN Secretary-General on the targets, had a blunt message for the leaders of much of the developed world: Look in the mirror.

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"Where we are in 2010 is mostly a testimony about ourselves," Prof. Sachs said in a recent interview. "Neither the Harper government nor the Obama administration is doing close to what I would expect of our countries living in the wealth and comfort of North America."

He slammed Canada's international development agency for not taking a more active role in forging progress toward the goals. "It's just been very disappointing for me," he said, "because I've grown up believing in Canada's leadership."

The criticism by Prof. Sachs, a prominent economist, comes as world leaders begin to gather Monday in New York for a special summit to reinvigorate the drive to meet hard targets in combatting poverty, disease, and inequality by 2015. With the deadline nearing, efforts to meet these Millennium Development Goals are falling short.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama are among the nearly 150 leaders who will attend the high-level meeting.

They are expected to adopt a 31-page statement renewing their commitment to the targets and promising new funding. But experts and activists fear that with no way to hold governments responsible for their pledges, the goals will not be met, turning the years-long drive into a humiliating failure.

Prof. Sachs said there has been considerable progress in some areas, including the push toward universal primary education and the attempt to eradicate diseases such as malaria. Other goals, such as efforts to lower the mortality rate for women during childbirth, are embarrassingly off-target.

In an interview in his New York office, Prof. Sachs said the Harper government had shown a "lack of interest" in the goals, with the exception of its initiative to improve maternal and child health, the theme of the recent meeting of the Group of Eight countries in Huntsville, Ont.

"Canada roused itself long enough to hold a summit this summer, spent $1-billion for the weekend," Prof. Sachs said. "I don't think we got the results, frankly, that we want out of it."

He said it wasn't clear the commitments made in Huntsville would translate into action. Over time, he said, he's learned that such announcements by the G8 "aren't really bankable."

Canada wasn't the only country to come under fire. Germany, France, Italy and Japan also aren't making the required effort, Prof. Sachs said, when measured by the percentage of their national income directed toward development aid.

He reserved his harshest criticism for his home country. Not only does the United States contribute a paltry amount toward aid efforts - about 0.2 per cent of income, compared with the international target of 0.7 per cent - but its political climate also has turned harsh, Prof. Sachs asserted.

"We actually have a whole campaign against compassion," he said. "We are told repeatedly that that's mawkish sentimentalism of unserious people."

Once a wunderkind economist at Harvard University, Prof. Sachs remains controversial for the advice he dispensed to struggling emerging economies in the 1980s and 1990s. For more than a decade, his work has focused on how to promote health and development, reduce poverty and arrest climate change.

The past 10 years have consisted of "trying to break through a crowded political space that does not pay much attention to any of this," he said.

Prof. Sachs has little patience for protestations by wealthy countries that they can't afford more assistance. Consider the choices that leaders in Africa confront with their meagre resources, he said.

This month, he was in Kigali, Rwanda, for a private meeting with 15 African heads of state. "All of them were discussing whether to have children in school or whether to have mothers saved in childbirth or whether to have vaccine problems, because [they]can't do all of these things," Prof. Sachs recalled heatedly. "It's an impossible choice."

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