The Not-So-Great Professor: Jeffrey Sachs’ Incredible Failure to Eradicate Poverty in Africa

Howard W. French, Pacific Standard, September 17, 2013

The early sections of Nina Munk’s book about the economist Jeffrey Sachs read like a celebration of a boy genius. No, strike that: Sachs piles up so many achievements so quickly that the word genius sounds somehow inadequate.

By the age of 13, he was taking college math. Later, he got near-perfect scores on his SATs and graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, where by 28 he was a tenured professor. Two years later, he was advising the Bolivian government on how to administer economic “shock therapy,” designed to break the spell of hyperinflation. This led to an even bigger triumph: masterminding Poland’s transition to a market economy in 1989, as communism collapsed in Eastern Europe.

Today, though, Sachs is best known for his obsession with the noble idea of ending global poverty “once and for all.” In his 2005 best seller, The End of Poverty, he argued that with proper planning and funding, extreme poverty could be wiped off the Earth by 2025.

Months before the book’s publication, Sachs began work on a project designed to put his ideas in action in a handful of villages in sub-Saharan Africa. Munk, a reporter who had little prior experience in Africa, economics, or the amorphous field of “development,” spent six years following him on his trips to the continent and visiting on her own to assess his achievements there. The reader can feel her learning along the way, not just about her subject—the “Great Professor,” as one of his African employees calls him—but also about his ambitions and their distance from reality.

The more Munk gets to know Sachs, the more she perceives in him a deep unwillingness to concede any shortcomings in his ideas or their implementation. {snip}

Gradually, as Munk becomes more attuned to this feature of Sachs’s thinking, and more confident in her judgments, it becomes clear that she has no interest in burnishing the Great Professor’s ample legend. On the contrary: Her book is a devastating portrait of hubris and its consequences.

Sachs became obsessed with Africa during his first visit to the continent, a trip to Zambia in 1995, when the underfunded health care system had been totally overwhelmed by AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. The suffering and death Sachs saw shocked him, and he began reading everything he could about poverty, devouring works on agriculture, nutrition, disease, education, and commerce, synthesizing what he’d learned for papers and reports. Eventually he devised a massive experiment in foreign intervention at the village level. If it succeeded (or, in Sachs’ view, when it succeeded) in a handful of villages, it could then be expanded to cover entire countries and even—why not?—all of Africa.

The Millennium Villages Project was formally launched in June 2006, with support from the Earth Institute of Columbia University (of which Sachs is the director), the United Nations Development Program, and donors like George Soros. By the end of 2006, it included 12 villages in 10 sub-Saharan countries; the goal was to put each on a path toward economic growth by investing heavily for five years in food production, health care, education, and infrastructure.

Given the deeply mixed record of development assistance to Africa, this was a bold wager. Decades of aid totaling billions of dollars had failed to lift much of the continent out of poverty. And, as the economist William Easterly has noted, Sachs’ “Big Plan,” for all its claims of novelty, bore striking similarity to ideas about foreign aid that had been propounded since the 1950s. But Sachs did more than promise success where others had failed; he also guaranteed sustainability. According to a memo circulated to Sachs’s senior staff, “When the five-year [Millennium Villages] funding stops, the MVs should be able to continue their economic progress without a loss of momentum, a drop in living standards, or a decline in social services.”

This goal was premised on the notion that development can be accomplished simply by assembling the right set of instructions, and then paying for their implementation. Over and over Sachs boasted that, with his plan, beating poverty wasn’t just doable, but easy.

{snip}

But the road to success was not nearly as smooth—or knowable—as Sachs had predicted. The original plan was for the people of Dertu to preserve their nomadic lifestyle. But the abundance of donated food and services drew people from far and wide and induced them to settle. What had originally been little more than a watering hole for camels became a sprawling shantytown, its streets clogged with garbage. The new livestock market failed. The one water pump broke down. People began to fight among themselves for distributed goods. There was drought, followed by flooding. There were epidemics. There was theft, malingering, misreporting, and more.

Similar problems befell other villages. As the villagers’ disillusionment with the project grew, so did Munk’s disillusionment with Sachs. Again and again she saw him move the goalposts or seek additional funding rather than admit that he was failing—that he and the 29 other academics who wrote the Millennium Villages Handbook had been unable to anticipate all the social and environmental complexities at work in even the smallest of villages. “To a large extent,” Munk writes, “the success of the Millennium Villages Project depended on Sachs’ idea of progress.”

Confronted with the inability of his villages to sustain themselves financially, he kept changing the plan, improvising frantically: One moment the answer was to attract tourists, the next it was to transform peasants—who for generations had struggled to grow just enough food to survive—into credit-worthy entrepreneurs harvesting cash crops for export.

{snip}

The weakness that dooms most plans like the Millennium Villages to failure is best summarized by the Yale political scientist James C. Scott, in his book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. For Scott, the culprit is “high-modernist ideology,” which he defines as a “muscle-bound … self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of human production, [and] the growing satisfaction of human needs.”

In Scott’s account, high modernism inflicted its greatest damage in vast utopian campaigns like Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, the collectivization of farms in the Soviet Union, and compulsory villagization in Tanzania and Ethiopia. In each of these cases, schemes promising massive progress were forced on people by an authoritarian state that was willing and able to use “the full weight of its coercive power” to bring its designs into being.

Though much smaller in scale than these examples—and certainly less deadly—the Millennium Villages Project proceeded along similar lines. “No administrative system,” Scott writes, “is capable of representing any existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematized process of abstraction and simplification.” In the case of the Millennium Villages, this simplification was embodied by the 147-page handbook, written by academics in New York with insufficient regard for hard-won local knowledge. What Sachs failed to recognize, more than any individual research finding, is that rural Africa is thick with the wreckage of failed development projects more or less imposed by outsiders, and that Western powers have adopted new, often contradictory aid policies every decade or so, never publicly acknowledging their mistakes or owning up to the collateral damage they’ve inflicted on African lives.

BY THE END OF Munk’s book, the Millennium Villages Project is winding down (it is officially scheduled to end in 2015). Sachs seems defeated by Africa, but defeated in the manner of charismatic savior figures everywhere, for whom setbacks only ever spur quests for new, bigger stages. He campaigned to run the World Bank. He wrote about the need for a “new progressive movement.” He published a flailing jeremiad titled “A World Adrift,” and talked about a “very, very dark cloud” threatening to envelop humanity.

“For a long time, I wanted to simplify the problems by putting aside the rich world’s issues and so forth and focusing on extreme poverty,” he tells Munk. “But it’s all interconnected.”

Munk asks where the money will come from to finish the work in the Millennium Villages. “It is what it is,” he says. “And that’s not meant to be callous.”

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