Jeffrey Sachs, john powell, Kumi Naidoo

A Public Dialogue on Inclusive and Sustainable Development

By: Sabby Robinson and Sara Grossman

In a truly fair and inclusive society, all individual members should have equal access to the resources and opportunities produced by the larger whole. However, as renowned sustainable development leader Jeffrey Sachs noted in his keynote address at the 2017 Othering and Belonging conference, this is not remotely close to the case in the United States today.

“US society is more unequal than at any time in its modern history,” Sachs said during his keynote on inclusive and sustainable development. “This is not some modern phenomenon. We are an outlier from other rich countries, we are the most unequal, the most unprepared.”

Sachs, the Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, noted that the same forces of globalization affecting the US have affected similar nations worldwide, but that other countries have chosen to deal with the effects of that—namely inequality—in very different ways. He argued that we can date the start of that departure in strategy to an exact time: 10:00 AM on January 20, 1981—the day that Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. Reagan was swept into office on the promise of vast tax cuts and slashes to social programs like welfare, which Sachs argued is a key driver to maintaining equality and opportunity in any society.

“The lesson that both the Democrats and the Republicans took from [Reagan’s election] was that everyone should promise tax cuts,” Sachs said. Since then, campaigning on a platform of tax cuts and attacks on social programs have become de rigeur in American politics—and has helped the US become one of the most unequal among wealthy countries.

A Public Dialogue on Inclusive and Sustainable Development, a Keynote Panel by Jeffrey Sachs, john powell, and Kumi Naidoo 

However, Sachs believes that the US can find direction from the policy models of Scandinavian countries, which have high tax rates but also widespread social services and low levels of inequality. A country like the US, with low levels of taxation, cannot possibly be just when wealth and income is flowing into the pockets of a very few, he said.

This belief in the necessity of both taxation and social services is what makes possible social mobility, Sachs argued. “It’s what makes possible modern infrastructure that doesn’t collapse. It’s what makes possible a green economy” Sachs said. “The rich are walking away from responsibility. This is greed, this is short sightedness, this is Othering.”

Furthermore, he said, race and racial anxiety have long been used as an effective strategy to divide working people in the United States—helping convince certain groups that they will benefit from the exclusion or oppression of other communities. Trump, Sachs said, “played the Other card on everything” to great success.

Following his address, Sachs was joined onstage by Kumi Naidoo, launch director of the African Civil Society Initiative and former Executive Director for Greenpeace International, and Haas Institute director john a. powell for a panel discussion.

Naidoo, who grew up in South Africa, provided an outsider’s perspective on the US’s political system, describing it “at best” as a liberal oligarchy driven by a “parasitic elite.” Naidoo and Sachs agreed that money in politics is one of the largest barriers to developing a truly equitable and healthy society—one that includes the earth and all its creatures. Naidoo, an expert on environmental activism, added that inequality must be tackled with the environment in mind. “If we do not do address inequality within the Sustainable Development goals—forget about it,” he said. As climate change threatens to wipe out whole communities and cause the economic and environmental destruction of peoples around the world, environmental and social justice remain inextricably linked.

“The planet does not need saving,” he added. “Because humans may be gone, but the planet will still be here.”

Naidoo expanded on his vision by laying out exactly how things should change for a more equitable and inclusive society. Firstly, he said, we must better understand and address how public consciousness and awareness is created, and secondly, we must recognize “that the democratic systems that we have right now is a form of democracy without the substance of democracy—and it’s a charade.

Thirdly, Naidoo said, the current economic system that we are often afraid to challenge is broken— “it’s unjust, and it must be rewritten.”


“What we need to figure out is a way to coexist with the earth,” Naidoo said. “What we are facing is the struggle to secure a world that is safe for our children, and our children’s children. We must have courage because there’s nothing more important than safeguarding our future generations.”

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