Jeffrey Sachs: The man who failed to end global poverty

Jeff Sachs

News Analysis (See also Part 2 – the Prequel, a chat with Sachs about his controversial big ideas)

Jeff Sachs
Jeff Sachs
Earth Institute

Yes, that’s a ridiculous headline. Oddly enough, it’s not that different from recent headlines on otherwise serious media reports and punditry regarding the anti-poverty economist Jeffrey Sachs. To wit:

Globe and Mail How Jeffrey Sachs failed to save Africa

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

Power Line How Not to Save The World

Holy Cow! I had no idea this single Columbia University academic was so powerful and that we, the world community, had entrusted him with the responsibility of eradicating global poverty. What a huge disappointment then to discover his failure. No wonder everyone is so upset.

Sachs’ critics may accuse me of being sarcastic, rightly so, and missing the point behind their sometimes pretty vitriolic critiques of the man. No, I get it.

The main point made by most critics, most recently stimulated by the publication of a book The Idealist by Vanity Fair’s Nina Munk, is that Sachs is unjustifiably claiming to be making progress against poverty with one of his initiatives known as the Millennium Villages Project. Here’s our recent post reporting some of that criticism.

As Bill Easterly, also a development expert and economist based in the Big Apple, noted in his Reason magazine review of Munk’s book:

Like Al Capone being convicted of tax evasion, Sachs’ promise that aid would deliver an end to poverty wound up being convicted on a lesser charge: not doing evaluation properly. The critics pointed out that any positive trends in the Millennium Villages would have to be compared with the positive Africa-wide trends in health, access to clean water, and overall development. Sachs had not set up the project in a way where this comparison could be done reliably.

So okay, the problem here is not really that Sachs, as one person, has failed to end poverty. That’s absurd, of course, or at least should be viewed as such.

The real complaint many have with Sachs is that they say he assumed the benefit of targeted aid projects and failed to set up adequate measures to track and evaluate whatever progress he claimed was happening in these MVP communities.

If you don’t know, the MVP project was launched by Sachs and his colleagues in Africa to demonstrate that poor communities could flourish if funded to do just a handful of relatively inexpensive interventions focused on health, utilities, education and infrastructure. Critics say there’s no evidence to show this. Oh, and most privately add that Sachs has an annoyingly big ego.

Let’s assume the complaints are valid. How does Sachs-bashing (I may trademark the phrase) move us forward?

The aid and development community is an incredibly insular bunch, ignored by most. Sorry, but as a journalist I am obligated to report the truth as I see it. And the truth is most people, and policy makers, don’t give a damn about poor people in Africa or Asia. Those of you who do are wonderful people, but you are in the vast minority.

So what may look to you as a legitimate debate among thought-leaders translates into the public domain as a personal pissing match that risks undermining the entire enterprise. Most people already shrug off the ambitious notion of ‘ending poverty’ – thinking perhaps it’s a nice idea but about as feasible as putting people on Mars.

The increasingly ad hominem nature of the attacks on Sachs are entertaining. We in the media love a pissing contest.

But this urination game may risk making what should be a serious, urgent discussion — how best to fight extreme poverty around the world — into a circular firing squad in which the few who really do want to end extreme poverty shoot each other and then themselves in the figurative foot.

Sachs has acknowledged that the MVP didn’t have adequate metrics at the outset. He and his colleagues have since made changes to the program to improve monitoring and evaluation, though it doesn’t appear to be enough to mollify the critics.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning that few of Sachs’ critics say these projects have not seen progress. Some even acknowledge the progress but contend there’s no way to attribute this to Sachs’ initiative. As I reported when I visited a Millennium Villages Project in southern Rwanda, most locals aren’t that worried about the metrics debate. As one of Sachs’ Rwandan colleagues, Donald Ndahiro, told me with a big grin:

“Everybody is always talking about measurement, but how do we measure peoples lives?” Ndahiro said. “Often, the most important things to us here in a community like this, in Rwanda, are not so easily measured by someone sitting at their computer in New York or Washington, D.C.”

I’m no economist, or an expert on aid and development, so I will leave the nitty gritty statistical and metrics arguments to others. My expertise is in communicating to the public about these efforts aimed at reducing poverty and inequity around the world, and (to admit my bias) why we should care. The debates about how are valuable, and critical to making progress. But personalizing the debate — focusing too much on one person’s failures — probably doesn’t help on the caring front.

Next up: An interview with the man who failed to end global poverty. Also, look soon for Humanosphere correspondent Tom Murphy’s report on the very first Millennium Village Project, launched nearly a decade ago in Sauri, western Kenya.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.