Sachs gives keynote address on international law's role in helping African children

October 29, 2007

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University, was the keynote speaker at the 12th Annual Herbert Rubin and Justice Rose Luttan Rubin International Law Symposium, hosted by the New York University Journal of International Law and Politics.

Renowned international economist Jeffrey Sachs minced no words describing the plight of children in sub-Saharan Africa: “There is no question that the state of Africa’s children is a state of dire crisis, and pervasively so in all parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is really the epicenter of the global development challenge.”

Sachs admitted that Africa’s problems were not his areas of expertise or interest until a dozen years ago, but when he became involved on that continent, he felt compelled to learn more, because “the sense of death and vulnerability everywhere was overwhelming.” He ran through a series of sobering statistics in laying out the dimensions of the crisis, whose aspects include Africa’s extremely young population structure, deficient healthcare, lack of education, widespread orphanhood, violence, gender inequities and, finally, a lack of employment opportunities for those children who do reach adulthood. The problems begin with a lack of resources at the pre- and neonatal stages and snowball from there. On average, 16.3 percent of sub-Saharan African children die before age five.

“There’s no reason for these deaths,” said Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “These are deaths from readily preventable and treatable causes.” Simple, low-cost medical solutions exist, he said, but the international community has not delivered them on an adequate scale.

The reason is that international law is too easy to neglect, Sachs said. “I don’t actually believe that there’s really something so qualitatively different between domestic and international law, that here you have a sovereign to enforce the law and with international law you don’t. In both cases, domestic and international law survive because people believe in it, subscribe to it, and follow it as a norm.”

The solution—wisely applied, low-cost interventions—is obvious, Sachs concluded, and our international agreements to contribute significantly to those solutions already exist; the key is to enforce them. “We’re letting it happen. It’s contrary to all the international promises that have been made over the years, and also contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the constitution of the World Health Organization, and a lot of the rest of international law. So I want you to take someone to court, basically…. At a tiny fraction of what we’re squandering in Iraq right now killing people, we could afford to make universal access to healthcare a reality just by ourselves alone, much less in partnership with the other rich countries of the world. This is about choice, it’s about rights, it’s about law. Go at it.”

By Atticus Gannaway

Jeffrey Sachs giving the keynote at the 2007 Rubin Symposium