A partnership between Columbia University in New York city and the United Nations has been launched for the first time, to assist local communities to deal with a growing number environmental and social challenges.
For five years, academics at Columbia University's Earth Institute have taken a hands-on approach to the world's most pressing problems, from the jungles of the Amazon in South America to the mountains of the Himalayas in South Asia.
Now, the University has joined forces with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. Jeffrey Sachs, who is set to become the head of the University's Earth Institute, will run the program. He is also an advisor to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Professor Sachs said the world's poor, particularly in Africa, are in dire need of assistance, following a failure by wealthy nations to address their social and environmental concerns. "You have the poorest countries actually experiencing absolute declines in living standards," he said. "Now this is shocking, it's deeply distressing, it's counter to all our shared global ambitions, and it remains the most urgent problem in the world, although not necessarily the most addressed problem in the world."
Professor Sachs says the Columbia University - U.N. partnership will focus on five key issues, water, energy, health, agriculture, and biodiversity presented recently by Secretary General Annan.
Six research sites have already been established in Cambodia, Peru, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the United States.
The program is attempting to address problems in rural areas. For example, UNESCO and the Earth Institute are working with the Cambodian government to restore the eco-system of the Tonle Sap Great Lake, which provides the fisheries for more than one-million people.
Researchers are focusing on the alleviation of poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo and on the environmental consequences of human ranching in desert grasslands in North America and Kenya.
The world's largest cities are receiving attention too. A partnership of participants in New York, Madrid, Rome, Sao Paulo and Cape Town examine the effects of urbanization on the environment.
UNESCO's Peter Bridgewater said the scope of the Columbia - United Nations partnership differentiates the program from other joint efforts. "It is different because it is linking what is happening in the countries, it is linking governments, it is linking local people, real local people on the ground with the capacity of Columbia [University] to deliver on the research activities," he said.
In two years, additional research sites will include Eastern Europe, the Mongolian grasslands, Indonesia, India, Brazil and Costa Rica.
The launch of the program comes just two months before the World Summit on Sustainable Development begins in Johannesburg.