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The Aid Debate Is Over

The failure of Jeffrey Sachs' Millennium Villages

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk, Doubleday, 260 pages, $26.95

Jeffrey Sachs' formula for ending poverty was appealingly simple. All the problems of poverty, the famous Columbia University economist argued, had discrete technological fixes. Bed nets could prevent malaria-spreading mosquito bites. Wells could provide clean water. Hospitals could treat curable diseases. Fertilizer could increase yields of food crops.

Ending poverty, therefore, was just a matter of raising enough money to pay for the right combination of known technical solutions to poor people's problems. Sachs would provide a slam-dunk demonstration project by deploying these comprehensive tech fixes in a dozen or so "Millennium Villages" in Africa. Success would build upon success, and advocacy money would flow, until poverty was eliminated from the poorest continent.

The Idealist, Nina Munk's brilliant book on Sachs' anti-poverty efforts, chronicles how his dream fell far short of reality. Munk, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, follows Sachs around as he supervises the experiment. She also goes out on her own to the Millennium Villages, especially Dertu, in the ethnic Somali region of Kenya's arid north, and the more centrally located settlement of Ruhiira, Uganda. What she finds in these villages reveals much about the future of the aid and development debate.

Sachs' technical fixes frequently turned out to be anything but simple. The saga of Dertu's wells is illustrative. Ahmed Mohamed, the local man in charge of the effort, discovers that he needs to order a crucial part for a generator that powers the wells. The piece takes four months to arrive, and then nobody knows how to install it. Eventually a distant mechanic arrives at great expense. A couple of years later, Munk returns to find Mohamed struggling with the same issues: The wells have broken down again, the parts are lacking, and nobody knows how to fix the problem.

A little more than a year after that, the wells are up and running again, and the Millennium Villages blog celebrates Dertu as having "the most reliable water supply within the region." Yet by 2011 the wells have run completely dry due to a drought—a not-uncommon occurrence in the arid region.

Such examples multiply in Munk's book, showing that purely technological answers to poverty fall well short of Sachs' promises. It turns out that technology does not implement itself; it requires the assistance of real people subject to widely varying incentives and constraints in complex social and political systems.

Munk relates successes as well as failures. Sachs' project spent $1.2 million on health in Ruhiira, hiring two doctors and 13 midwives. Now many fewer mothers in Ruhiira are left to their own resources to give birth, and the prevalence of malaria has fallen dramatically. But too often, the failures seem to offset these small victories. In recent years, Munk has found herself chronicling a rising chorus of criticism. Three months before the release of Munk's book, Foreign Policy published a harsh critique of the project, offering negative verdicts from an impressive roster of experts in the development field.

This final tide of criticism of Sachs' vision came from an unlikely source. Like Al Capone going to jail for tax evasion, Sachs' promise that aid would deliver an end to poverty wound up being convicted on a lesser charge: shoddy evaluation procedures. To declare that the experiments had been a success, any positive trends in the Millennium Villages should have been measured against Africa-wide trends in health, access to clean water, and overall development. But because of the way Sachs set up the project, this comparison could not be done reliably. For example, his team had not collected any data on any other similar villages, which would have made it possible to contrast what happens with and without the Millennium Villages treatment and cash.

New York University economist Jonathan Morduch told Foreign Policy that Sachs' "big-package approach is an anachronism relative to the ideas that development economists have gravitated toward.…Today's typical projects are narrow, easier to evaluate, and pitched as part of a layering of independent interventions. A sanitation project here. A school intervention there." Sachs' set-up failed to deliver the kind of evaluation-friendly projects that today's development economists prefer-targeted interventions that show very focused (and relatively modest) results.

Sachs' true objective for the Millennium Villages was much grander. He hoped to show that properly delivered aid could bring about the end of poverty. His critics rarely mention this aspect of his work. The notion of such sweeping change is apparently so implausible to today's development economists that they do not consider it worth refuting. The big aid debate that Sachs initiated is already over.

We can now see that aid and development are two distinct topics that should each have their own separate debates. If today's development economists talk only about what can be tested with a small randomized experiment, they confine themselves to the small aid conversation and leave the big development discussion to others, too often the types of advocates who appeal to anecdotes, prejudice, and partisanship. It would be much better to confront the big issues, such as the role of political and economic freedom in achieving development.

In 2005 I wrote a negative review of Sachs' book The End of Poverty, and I became identified for years afterward (with rising unwillingness) as the antithesis to Sachs' thesis, a polarized side in a never-ending debate—Aid can end poverty! No, it can't!—that played itself out in dueling books, blogs, media quotes, and syllabi. Eight and a half years later, I take no pleasure in the defeat of Sachs' big ideas, especially since this failure involves the suffering of those who were the subjects of the Millennium Villages experiment.

Sachs does deserve some positive recognition: He was and is a very gifted and hard-working advocate for those who have not yet benefited from the considerable progress that has happened as a result of development. But his idea that aid could rapidly bring the end of poverty was wrong. It's time to move on.

Photo Credit: screencap

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  • sarcasmic||

    Economic liberty is the cure for poverty.

  • mtrueman||

    Your first error was in taking the bait that poverty was something that could be 'cured.' Your second was offering a solution that was just as abstract and reified as the problem. Instead, tackle real problems like lack of access to drinking water and address it with sustainable technology. To a wealthy westerner, a manual pump might have the taint of poverty about it, but it will do its job reliably.

  • Gorilla tactics||

    uh...poverty was the default setting of the human race for millenia, on every continent and of every ethnicity it's the natural affairs. There is less poverty because of economic liberty, ask the 300 million chinese who have climbed out of poverty in the past decade.

  • mtrueman||

    Precisely which millenia are you talking about? Humans have been around for a very long time and a few millenia are just a fraction of human existence.

    The past decade in China? Again your timing is questionable. I know China well and China's rise out of misery began longer than a decade ago. It goes back to the defeat of the Japanese and the warlords. The communist party cared little for your economic liberties. They concentrated on bringing basic health (barefoot doctors) drinking water and education to the population. Even though these policies killed tens of millions, hundreds of millions were given a stable footing in life, something not widespread in China for a century or more.

  • Free Society||

    Political institutions did not pull the Chinese out of poverty. Abandoning the marketphobia of Soviet style central planning did.

    Governments do not produce, they can only plunder and destroy. So it's not what the government does that alleviates poverty, it's what it doesn't do.

  • Harun||

    China was on the export growth path with thriving cities like Shanghai in the early 30's. Then came war with Japan, and then Communist takeover.

    The claim that China started to become richer after Communist takeover is incorrect. Also, communism quite clearly hurt China's economic growth. See the Great Leap Forward's villages destroying plowshares to make steel, or the Cultural Revolution's disruption of a generation's education.

  • Dweebston||

    Wasn't the AIDS/HIV debate settled ages ago?

    Wait...

  • Live Free or Diet||

    technology does not implement itself

    More importantly, technology is not simply physical objects isolated from education, ideas and actions. I know people who can make wonderful things out of what looks a lot like nothing. I know other people who will literally sit in the dark for days rather than buy a $5 flashlight when the power's out.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    How much CO2 are those well pumps tossing into the atmosphere? That needs to be factored in. Anyway, the best way to eliminate poverty is to redefine it. Duh.

  • Sevo||

    You can't cure poverty by giving (most) poor people money.

  • JohnD||

    This article clearly shows that technology can improve people's lives. But, you can't just drop a magic mystery box in a primitive village and expect it to work indefinitely.

    The real cure is relevant education. If the villages had a small supply of spare parts and a villager was trained to repair the generators, a different result would have been had.

    Even better, a manual backup to the electric pump, such as one with a handle that a man or woman could turn would be even better.

    As for the drought, sorry 'bout that. I have no answers.

  • TheZeitgeist||

    The real cure is relevant education. If the villages had a small supply of spare parts and a villager was trained to repair the generators, a different result would have been had.

    Things don't work that way in Africa. The villager who knew how to fix the well would soon be extorting rest the village for water, then the ten year olds with AK's show up (AK's work with no maintenance or understanding really how they work - perfect technology for Africa), and gunning down the water guy to get his extorted lucre. While wearing lady's lingerie on their head to boot. Africa's weird.

    Then they'd sell the generator parts, and probably the generator, on the black market for scrap; maybe use some prettier generator parts to touch up the lingerie headgear, and its back to square one. South Sudan and C.A.R. are great examples of these principles in action right this very minute.

  • sarcasmic||

    You can't have economic liberty without property rights and rule of law. Neither of which are to be found in Africa. Where governments do function, they are corrupt. Where they do not function, you've got murderous ten year old kids taking what they please. The whole continent is fucked.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Thank you, Europe. Remind me why we should listen to them again?

  • Free Society||

    Because of the civilization that does surrounds you. As opposed to the barbarism that has always plagued places like Africa.

  • Gorilla tactics||

    i've heard that just under half of the criminal trials in the central african republic have to do with "witchcraft"

  • Waffen Hans||

    This guy seemed not to only be passionate about ending poverty in Africa, but forgot to factor in the following: sociology and anthropology. If he did, he wouldn't have made the fool's error of believing that Africans would react and solve problems of those living in Western civilization. For some reason I'm thinking of Prime Directive from Star Trek here.

  • Waffen Hans||

    That sounded horrible. I lost my train of thought when a colleague of mine came by to talk about if I had completed this month's TPS report.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I used to say "people need to eat tomorrow, too." Providing a backstop to a specific, discrete problem with a specific, discrete cause is one thing. Changing skill levels, problems related to location, political issues, all very much another.

    But no one has such unlimited faith in the magic power of wealth as those who profess to despise it.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    NGO parasites have families to feed, you know.

  • PM||

    The most strident opponents of colonialism never did manage to shake the White Man's Burden philosophy that underwrote it. The modern version fails for mostly the same reasons.

  • Tommy_Grand||

    "I take no pleasure in the defeat of Sachs' big idea.."

    = disingenuous. I’m sure author would prefer to have won debate by universal acclamation back in 05, thereby avoiding the necessity of human suffering and death to prove his argument. Yet claiming he takes “no pleasure” whatsoever in winning an 8-year-long, vigorous intellectual battle feels a tad insincere.

  • Waffen Hans||

    If being insincere is lacking or not being able to show true feelings, and feelings are an emotion, how does one read text and come to the conclusion that the author is therefore "insincere"?

  • Malvolio||

    I cannot speak for the author specifically, but what kind of sociopath would so pleased to have been proven right as to ignore the fact that being right, in this case, means the painful and unnecessary deaths of millions of inoffending people?

  • Tommy_Grand||

    I’ll wager every Reason reader can define insincere, which can mean, as you wrote, not showing TRUE feelings. Syn: fake, dishonest, counterfeit, false. If one says: "I take no pleasure" when (in truth) one does take pleasure, the statement is insincere -- even if said pleasure is blended with genuine & humane regrets.

  • Waffen Hans||

    Once again: "how does one read text and come to the conclusion that the author is therefore insincere?" Why do you use "truth" to describe value based judgement of another individual you have never met or do not know personally? It it is "truth", then how do we test it? If we test it and find out that you are absolutely correct that he is 100 percent "insincere", does that mean the author isn't credible or have a right to posit his findings?

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  • Mamacadia||

    Easterly's title "The Aid Debate is Over" is a little like George Bush's "Mission Accomplished." Just because you proclaim it doesn't make it so. This reflects the arrogance of those in development who politicize the industry. I've heard Nina Munk speak on many occasions, and it is clear that she has little understanding of Jeff Sach's body of work and has never read one of his books, although she often refers to "End of Poverty" quite often. For someone who's father (Peter Munk) is the founder and chairman of one of the largest mining companies, Barrick Gold, I find her sincerity a little suspect. Her work strikes me more like a "hit" piece than an honest debate about development. Just as is the case with Easterly, the world is not listening to Munk.

  • Alaz||

    Another Take on the Aid Debate: http://woubetk.blogspot.com/

  • Waffen Hans||

    The only "libertarians" (more likely 20 year old kids calling themselves "Anarcho-Capitalists") to be pissed off about this article are those that don't live in the real world or don't even freaking vote. For the rest of us, we know that you can't make Libertopia happen over night. We also know that Rand has to play the other side to make those policies vanish that diminish economic and personal freedoms. We have to pick those fights we are most likely capable of winning: Marijuana v. Heroin.

  • Waffen Hans||

    Republicans have never been politically consistent, so this should be no surprise. I mean, you are talking about the old, crusty, white conservative demographic that go ape shit if someone doesn't partake in the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance (written by a socialist!).

  • Waffen Hans||

    Stalin defeated "Nazism"? Wait, what? So Reason wants me to believe a socialist defeated socialism? How does that even making any fucking sense?

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