Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs was recently named Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City. Special adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals, Dr Sachs came to Rome to address a symposium on "Building a Consensus on Action against Hunger" during the World Food Summit: five years later at FAO headquarters. Below he shares some of his views on the subject.

FAO has identified lack of political will as one of the reasons for inadequate progress against hunger since the 1996 World Food Summit. Political leaders must cope with a world in which much is beyond their control. What are the key factors for success?

I think there are many complex factors that will need to be taken into account. Serious analysis shows that hunger can be conquered and at a really modest cost compared to the benefits. The background study that FAO has done, the Anti-Hunger Programme: Reducing hunger through agricultural and rural development and wider access to food, shows that an extra US$24 billion spent annually on rural infrastructure, research, emergency food assistance and other rural priorities would make a tremendous difference in the reduction of poverty and hunger. If that incremental expense could be divided roughly in half between the rich and poor countries, it would come to additional donor assistance of a mere 0.05 of one percent of the GNP of the rich countries. It is certainly an achievable objective. I think that FAO's study, while preliminary, is very well done. It shows what can be done, it is encouraging, and it demonstrates that these actions are affordable.

Any solution to world hunger must involve increased aid flows, yet official development assistance to agriculture declined by almost 50 percent during the 1990s. Do you see any sign of increased generosity on the part of Western governments that might eventually reverse this trend?

The declining trend in development assistance for agriculture has been dramatic and is part of a downward trend in development assistance for all sectors. It is alarming and has been going on now for the past 20 years. It explains why we haven't met the goals of reducing hunger and poverty. But the rich countries are waking up. At the Monterrey Conference on Financing for Development in March, for the first time in a generation, there was a clear commitment by the US and Europe to reverse this downward trend with their pledge of an additional US$12 billion in annual assistance. This is not enough money to realize the Millenium Development Goals, but it is a turning of the corner and shows a commitment to face up to the real challenges. I think we have to keep pressing to reach the magnitude that we need. At least we have on the agenda the need to increase the assistance for poverty alleviation.

Most people in most developing countries depend on the food and agriculture sectors for their livelihoods. FAO's position is that in order to defeat poverty and hunger, these sectors must be bolstered first. Yet, others make the same case for the health, education and trade sectors. What do you think should be the first priority and why?

I believe there needs to be a comprehensive, multisectoral approach. FAO is absolutely right that agriculture must be stressed, especially in Africa where it makes up such a large part of the economy. But we also want to make sure children are in school and that people are healthy so they can be healthy farmers. It is also true that over the next 30 years, increases in world population will be largely in urban areas. So we need to concentrate on both rural and urban areas. My job as special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals is to look across the sectors and to help meld together a strategy that will achieve the eight goals. One part will be to work with FAO to address the problem of hunger.

An International Allianceagainst Hunger would involve very different constituents: the private sector, non-governmental organizations, the UN system, development banks, governments, academia and private individuals. Practically speaking, do you think such disparate entities can work together?

I do. More importantly, they are going to have to. The problem of hunger can't be solved by any one set of actors. There is no question that government must play a role, but this won't work if it is all top down. Local NGOs in the community health and farm sectors play a key role in the delivery of services. At the international level, there has to be donor financing, assistance from FAO and other organizations, scientific input from the CGIAR system (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) and other scientific bodies. The private sector must be involved in order to make technology available at low cost or free to developing countries -- just as the pharmaceutical companies, who were holding patents on important drugs, have agreed to make them accessible through differential pricing. Agricultural companies that produce vital inputs like high-quality seeds and other products need to make a long-term commitment to do the same. My job is to work with all of them to push partnerships forward in a productive way. I should also mention my own sector, academia, which also has a lot to offer.

Is it possible to think of money spent on development assistance as an "investment" in the normal sense of the word, and how does one calculate return on such an investment?

Of course it is. Monetary value is only one part of our values. It is important not to put everything in economic terms. Still, in my work with the World Health Organization, we studied the economic costs of disease burden and calculated that an additional US$66 billion put into health services would yield a return of US$360 billion in benefits. I stress, however, that calculating these economic benefits should not deflect from the huge humanitarian element in these issues.

11 June 2002