Larry Summers and 266 Other Economists Tell the UN It's All About Health Care

Harvard's Summers says making the poor healthier gives a big bang for the buck.

Larry Summers

Larry Summers

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

As the United Nations launches a 17-point agenda for helping the world's poor, 267 economists from 44 countries on Friday published a declaration advocating one particular way: Make people healthier.

"In terms of how much better you can make the world per dollar you spend, it’s very difficult to beat a set of strategic investments in health care," Harvard University economist Larry Summers, who organized the manifesto, said in an interview. "Ours is the unique generation that has the prospect of convergence across the world in health," making the poor as healthy as the rich, Summers said.

What the economists are advocating is already included in the United Nations' new Sustainable Development Goals for the next 15 years. To be specific, it's part 8 of goal 3: "Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all."

The economists clearly feel that health deserves to be called out for special consideration. In their declaration, they "call on global policymakers to prioritize a pro-poor pathway to universal health coverage as an essential pillar of development."

Giving high priority to health implicitly means giving a lower priority to some of the other items on the UN agenda. Summers said he doesn't want to discuss which ones. "I’m not going to get into that game." (Summers, a former Treasury secretary, National Economic Council chief, and Harvard University president, knows a politically radioactive question when he hears it.)

Friday's declaration grew out of the Global Health 2035 report by the Lancet Commission on Investing in Health. That report found that each dollar invested in health in poor countries can have a payback of $9 or more.

World Bank Chief Economist Kaushik Basu, another signer of the declaration, said that having grown up in India made him especially aware of the importance of good health. "In India if you are poor, one health episode spins you into a trap you’ll never get out of," he said.

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