Book-Blogging: The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk

The IdealistThe only off piece of Nina Munk’s must-read book, The Idealist, is the title.

Which is not to say that Dr. Jeffrey Sachs – the former wunderkind Harvard professor and world-renowned economist whom Bono calls his personal personal “guru” – isn’t an idealist; he certainly appears to be.

But above all, Jeffrey Sachs is The Believer – in Jeffrey Sachs.

When his prescription for economic transformation, shock therapy, led to a massive transfer of Soviet wealth to corrupt Russian oligarchs, Dr. Sachs decried the politicians who screwed up his plan, not the plan itself.  When global health and development experts argued that his bednet proposal would cripple Tanzanian industry, Dr. Sachs called them “absurd,” “disreputable,” and even “economically ignorant.”

And when the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) – Dr. Sachs’s Big Idea to End Poverty Forever – has had setbacks and outright failures, it’s because of a lack of donor support and “artifact” disturbances beyond the project’s control, and not the project’s innate flaws. (Munk’s retort to this is excellent, and telling: “But why in the world were drought and violence and hostage taking unexpected in sub-Saharan Africa?”)

It seems that in Dr. Sachs’s world, you’re either with him, or you’re wrong.

After all, the man is uniquely smart. He is genuinely brilliant. “I’m a good economist!” Munk captures him yelling at one point;  “sometimes, I wonder why I need a PhD for this,” he says at another. Everyone else – similarly brilliant development experts included – just doesn’t get it.

But, at least when it comes to the MVP, Dr. Sachs is not a good economist – he’s an advocate. An eloquent, brilliant, effective, biased, good advocate. The project is his brainchild and his baby — he’s inextricably tied to it and will be judged by its success or failure — which makes true, dispassionate economic analysis difficult, if not impossible.

The origins of the MVP are relatively well-known; as Munk explains,

The stumbling block, [Sachs] concluded, was a “poverty trap”: an overwhelming, interconnected burden of disease, illiteracy, high fertility rates, dismal agricultural productivity, lack of capital, weak or nonexistent infrastructure, debt, hunger, drought, malnutrition.… Tackling one problem at a time, piecemeal, was pointless, he concluded. The way out of extreme poverty depended on a “big push” in foreign aid—a massive, coordinated investment designed to lift countries up and out of poverty, once and for all.

The idea is compelling in its simplicity: $120 per person per year for five years (later, ten – a “course correction,” according to the MVP), and poverty would be history. A few MVP sites piloted in 2005, with the expectation that success would show the world how easy (a word Dr. Sachs uses quite a bit in Munk’s book and his own, The End of Poverty) it is to get poor communities on the ladder of development. Billions would be pledged and the project would scale to every poor village in Sub-Saharan Africa. Easy.

As Munk documents from Ruhiira, Uganda, and Dertu, Kenya, the two MVP villages she spends the most time in, villagers’ lives certainly seemed to improve: farm yields increased; deserted hospitals came to life; garbage – a sure sign that things were being bought – piled up.

But $120 per person per year is a lot of money in southwestern Uganda and eastern Kenya – of course the villagers would be better off in the short term. The more important question: were they “on the ladder” of development, too? Once the money dried up, would they be able to lift themselves out of poverty?

Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know. For starters, it’s still much too early to say.

But more importantly, the project wasn’t set up to conclusively “prove” anything – possibly its most significant failure. As development economists Michael Clemens and Gabriel Demombynes have outlined in detail (along with others), the MVP didn’t start with randomized and controlled villages, so no true rigorous testing to assess efficacy of the intervention is possible (at least from its outset). The data is contaminated, flawed.

Munk un-wonks this for readers:

Yes, in Sachs’s villages, the prevalence of malaria had dropped, more women were giving birth with the help of trained birth attendants, child mortality was down, and generally speaking, people were better nourished. At the same time, those and other similar improvements were happening all across sub-Saharan Africa, not only in the Millennium villages… Between 2000 and 2010, for example, deaths from malaria fell by a third in Africa. Infant mortality rates dropped sharply. More African children than ever attended primary school. More Africans had access to safe drinking water….

Is Ruhiira better off than neighboring villages because it’s a MVP village? Probably (again, at least until the money dries up). But how much better off, and in what ways, and for how long? Was the MVP structure (and cost) necessary for those improvements, or could the results have been achieved at lower cost? There’s no way to know.

Dr. Sach’s response to this empirical, data-driven critique of the MVP? “I don’t think they’re on target, I don’t think they’re good science, and I don’t think they’re apropos.” (There’s more here, if you’re interested in diving into the wreck of the debate).

Basically: don’t trust the science. Trust me! I’m a good economist!

Munk’s book is an invaluable dissection of how policies developed in New York City from the top down are liable to fail on the ground in Sub-Saharan Africa — when they’re subjected to political, social, and cultural realities that are hard to predict from afar. She spends time with the villages in a way that Sachs simply cannot, as an observer and not The Great Professor (as the Dertu MVP lead refers to Dr. Sachs). She watches maize rot in Ruhiira because there’s nowhere to put the surplus (and because the villagers would rather eat matooke than posho – as anyone that has had both would in a heartbeat). She sees things fall apart.

I would love to see the MVP be wildly successful in Ruhiira, Dertu, and every other small village in Sub-Saharan Africa. I would love it if aid could actually end (extreme) poverty, once and for all.* I would love to see the whole world – wealthy and not – rally around the results and the effort: a global moonshot to end poverty forever.

But it’s far from clear that foreign aid is capable of doing that, and it’s far from clear the MVP will dramatically change this. It does seem clear that scaling up the MVP, at this point, would be an irresponsible use of limited funds that could otherwise go to targeted (read: cheaper) interventions. (Dr. Sachs has indicated that July 1st, 2016, is the drop date for the final evaluation of MVP pilot villages)

This isn’t a discussion about whether “aid works” or not. That argument, which recently flared up again on Twitter and elsewhere, is a completely parochial, utterly vacuous disagreement without meaning.

Some multilateral/government aid, used in the right way (often in the health sector) clearly is effective at saving lives and improving quality of life. Other aid, used in the wrong way, is a waste of money at best, and often actively harmful.

I find it hard to believe that a reasonable person would disagree with that last paragraph (Brett Keller makes a similar point here).

It’s time we all move on from such staleness; there are too many smart, hard-working people working in this space to continue it. Let’s discuss what can be done, and in what ways, to maximize whatever good we find ourselves able to do. This may be traditional aid, but it also could be a social enterprise, or a totally-for-profit business. Or a check, given directly to a family, to allow it to put an iron roof on its home.

Near the end of the book, with criticisms mounting and the success of the MVP in doubt, Munk notes that Dr. Sachs

 had distanced himself from his ongoing African experiment. His impassioned articles and speeches and interviews and tweets now centered on income inequality in the United States, climate change, the collapse of Greece, tax reforms, greed on Wall Street, the decline of moral standards, chaos in the euro zone, gun control, and the political vacuum in Washington. He was all over the place.

His latest book is on John F. Kennedy.


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*Bill Gates made overtures to this point in his eagerly-awaited Annual Letter, which is worth reading, though skeptically


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