‘Common set of values is only hope for humanity’

12 Aug 2020

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Dr Jeffrey D. Sachs speaks during the online event on Tuesday.—White Star
Dr Jeffrey D. Sachs speaks during the online event on Tuesday.—White Star

KARACHI: A US-led world for many decades has come to an end. The US no longer leads, it’s not even constructive. It has become a dangerous force under Donald Trump. We are moving to a post-US led world, to a multipolar world. It’s fraught with risks. Our only hope is a common set of values.

This was the concluding remark made by Dr Jeffrey D. Sachs, professor and director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network while delivering his talk on the topic ‘Can we find shared ethics for humanity in the 21 century’ organised online by the Aga Khan University on Tuesday.

Dr Sachs said the talk was being held at one of the most difficult periods in modern history, nothing short of shocking in so many ways because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The world has not faced such a situation since the Second World War. It is economically the biggest upheaval since the Great Depression with the world economy in confusion and turmoil.

On his subject, he said he chose it because the biggest challenge we face [today] is of cooperation together not only in the pandemic but because of many other global ills that beset us, such as climate change. What we see today in the midst of the epidemic is the capacities of countries to cooperate within their own societies; for governments to have trust of the people; and to cooperate globally … will determine our success or failure in confronting this crisis. The starting point is the striking differences across the world in performance of societies in confronting the health crisis.

The US has become an incredibly unequal society and a deeply divided one, says American scholar

The Asia-Pacific region including China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Australia and New Zealand etc, is one where the epidemic has not run out of control. It’s quite a remarkable accomplishment because the pandemic began in China, and China acted decisively to bring it under control. The neighbours around China too acted with great decisiveness in creating public health measures to suppress the virus.

Dr Sachs said he was happy to note that in Pakistan, while there were fears of massive eruptions of infections, the epidemic has remained not of an explosive character. It’s a testimony to public health measures taken and the fortitude of the population.

In the US, his country, he said there’s a largely out of control epidemic where the number of confirmed cases per million population is 10 times more than Pakistan and 100 times more than in the Asia-Pacific region. It has suffered 165,000 deaths. The US is the richest economy in the world, yet it’s shown itself to be incapable in addressing the problem. It’s a reflection of two facts. One, the political leadership has failed to make a coherent response to the epidemic; the government is mainly run by those who don’t want to listen to science. Two, the US has become an incredibly unequal society and a deeply divided one — divided by ideology, religion, income, wealth and by geography between cities with very little social trust where something like wearing a face mask became highly politicised. “The lack of social cohesion and lack of mutual respect … is killing people in the US.”

Dr Sachs said for almost every major problem that we face [in the world] requires social solidarity within countries. Countries that are divided internally are less cooperative internationally. As the US has become more and more socially divided, it has become less and less cooperative in the international sphere. The US is more interested in containing China than solving global problems. Even before the pandemic, the world system was not functioning properly. Economically, we were experiencing widening inequalities. This pandemic is driving a dramatic increase in inequality and environmental degradation.

In the US, there’s massive unemployment, with at least 50m people getting unemployed, and yet the rich are experiencing a rise in wealth that’s unprecedented. Mr [Jeff] Bezos of Amazon since the start of this year has increased his wealth by $71 billion dollars; his wealth is now $186bn. [Bill] Gates and [Mark] Zuckerberg have also experienced an increase in their wealth.

Dr Sachs said we will come out of the pandemic challenge weaker, more divided, and with more damaged international institutions than ever before. “It raises a question: whether we can find a common philosophy which can guide us in the 21st century.” He argued in the UN context that common ethics has long been framed around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The idea adopted in 1948 was that all parts of the world, all religious traditions and all peoples could agree on a basic set of values to underpin global cooperation. The declaration makes the claim that all of humanity can agree on the dignity of individuals and their rights. “None of them achieved adequately, globally,” he said.

He added the declaration was signed 72 years ago, so in 2023 it will celebrate its 75 anniversary, and put forward a series of queries. “Is it a living document? Is it a document that governments around the world will still espouse? Is it a document that can bridge divides between China and the US, and India and Pakistan? Can we reinvigorate this shared commitment?” He hoped that this is possible. He pointed out that a US-led world for many decades has come to an end. The US no longer leads. It’s not even constructive; it has become a dangerous force under Donald Trump. We are moving to a post-US led world, to a multipolar world. It’s fraught with risks. Our only hope is a common set of values.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2020