Michael Clemens


Learning from mistakes made: The Millennium Villages Project | 

Millennium Villages
Millennium Villages

Eds note: Updated with rebuttal and comments from representatives of the MVP.

The Millennium Villages Project, an ambitious project launched across Africa by economist Jeffrey Sachs, is once again drawing attention.

A somewhat critical book, The Idealist, by Vanity Fair editor Nina Munk describes Columbia University Professor Sachs’ sometimes brash style in convincing even his strongest opponents to follow his poverty alleviation prescriptions.

The MVP, as the project is known, was launched by Sachs nearly a decade ago to demonstrate that relatively inexpensive targeted interventions can achieve major benefits against disease and poverty. Since then, the project has been repeatedly criticized for lacking adequate measures and data to back up its claims of progress.

The book’s profile of Sachs is augmented by two new reports on the MVP. One explores media attention to the MVP in Africa. Another says that the mistakes made by the MVP provide lessons for future projects and illustrate the importance of transparency in development projects. Continue reading

Metrics Mania afflicts the fight against poverty | 

Flickr, chrisjohnbeckett

Newton, statue outside the British Library

A lot of people who say they want to help poor people — the aid and development community — have been getting really nasty with each other lately. Why? In part, it’s because fighting poverty is messy and hard to measure.

At the center of this nastiness is a well-known economist, Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, who is chronically accused by critics of promoting an anti-poverty strategy –  known as the Millennium Villages Project – which they say is unproven.

The criticism flared again recently, prompting reports like this Forbes piece, which contends Jeff Sachs’ Millennium Villages Showing Zero Results

That’s not quite true. The more thoughtful critics don’t actually say Sachs’ approach doesn’t work. They just say it isn’t clear yet if it’s working.

But boy, does this lack of clarity make some folks angry! To wit:

  • One of Sachs’ leading critics, Michael Clemens at the prestigious Center for Global Development in Washington, DC, recently referred to Sachs on Twitter as “contemptible” for failing to acknowledge his project’s faults in an op-ed he wrote defending the value of foreign aid.
  • Timothy Ogden, editor-in-chief at Philanthropy Action, replied to Clemens (also on Twitter) that Sachs is to economics what Pat Robertson is to Christianity, which I assume was not meant as a compliment.

I have high regard for both Clemens and Ogden and this was, after all, just Twitter. But such hostility directed at Sachs is not that unusual. And it has gotten so intense lately I started wondering if the intensity is overwhelming the content here.

I’m no aid expert, economist or even really that good at math. I’m just a journalist who covers this stuff. And I do love a good argument. But I’m not so sure this qualifies as a good argument anymore. Continue reading

Counterpoint: Economist takes on NYTimes ‘Malthusian’ tendencies | 

Flickr, nch05

Lotsa Nigerians

Last week, the United Nations’ predicted which countries can expect to see the biggest increases in urban populations – China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and … the United States.

I’m still waiting for someone to provide a more detailed analysis of what this all means, since the US is included in a list of other “emerging” countries that many see as having problems with managing population growth.

But until that happens, let’s consider the New York Times’ close look at population growth in Nigeria, which is already the world’s 6th most populous nation with something like 167 million people.

As the Times’ Elizabeth Rosenthal writes in her report Nigeria tested by rapid rise in population:

In a quarter-century, at the rate Nigeria is growing, 300 million people — a population about as big as that of the present-day United States — will live in a country the size of Arizona and New Mexico. In this commercial hub, where the area’s population has by some estimates nearly doubled over 15 years to 21 million, living standards for many are falling.

The gist of the Times’ story is that it is population growth which is causing hardship for so many Nigerians.

Chris Blattman, an aid expert and Yale economist, thinks this is just hogwash. He criticizes the newspaper for reverting to the archaic theories of population doom along the lines of 18th century Rev. Thomas Malthus in his rejoinder to the Times’ story dubbed Mr. Malthus goes to Nigeria:

Ever year or so the Times likes to run a Chicken Little story, warning us of the impending demographic and youth time bomb. I’m willing to bet the tradition goes back several decades. The bomb, oddly enough, is still ticking. What about Asia and Latin America, where previous demographic crises have been predicted?

The point many like Blattman, and Michael Clemens at the Center for Global Development, want to make is that population growth, per se, is not the problem. Lack of economic growth is the problem. And, as Blattman notes implicitly, as communities prosper their birth rates decline.

Happy Globalized Labor Day | 

Flickr, Steve Snodgrass

Labor Day Impression

What in the world does Labor Day have to do with global poverty and inequity?

At Humanosphere, we focus on various efforts aimed at reducing poverty or inequity — mostly in the developing world — which include fighting impoverishing diseases, increasing economic productivity, improving human rights and so on.

Today is Labor Day, which the U.S. Department of Labor says was created by the American labor movement and is “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

That’s not quite accurate. It was actually a holiday created by President Grover Cleveland to try to make peace with the American labor movement after Cleveland, in 1894, sent the military and U.S. marshals to break up the Pullman Strike — which resulted in 13 deaths, dozens wounded and a massive retaliatory riot by workers.

This year, of course, Labor Day is mostly occasion to pay tribute to our nation’s massive problem of unemployment caused by the economic slowdown. Obama gave a “jobs speech” today in Detroit.

So why, given our domestic problems, should we be paying attention to the rest of the world on Labor Day? The answer, in short, is that our economic well-being and future is increasingly dependent upon recognizing that the economy today is a global organism.

As the U.S. State Department’s representative of International Labor Affairs, Barbara Shailor, noted on its website devoted to human rights issues, the current upheaval in many Arab nations was prompted by the global economic slowdown and joblessness:

We cannot build a stable, global economy when hundreds of millions of workers and families find themselves on the wrong side of globalization, cut off from markets and out of reach of modern technologies… And we cannot advance democracy and human rights when hunger and poverty threaten to undermine the good governance and rule of law needed to make those rights real.

This is why our efforts to promote labor diplomacy are focused on ensuring that the global economy is working for everyone. This includes advocating for dignity at work and recognizing that honest labor, fairly compensated, gives meaning and structure to people’s lives and enables every family and all children to rise as far as their talents will take them.

Promoting jobs worldwide and thinking globally isn’t just the right thing to do, says Michael Clemens, with the Center for Global Development.  Writing in The Guardian, Clemens says it is clearly the smart thing to do. And the first thing he says we should do is stop trying to protect American jobs by restricting immigration:

The world impoverishes itself much more through blocking international migration than any other single class of international policy. A modest relaxation of barriers to human mobility between countries would bring more global economic prosperity than the total elimination of all remaining policy barriers to goods trade – every tariff, every quota – plus the elimination of every last restriction on the free movement of capital ….

Many people fear that even a minor increase in international migration will wreck their own economies and societies. Those fears deserve a hearing. They are old fears, of the kind that filled US newspapers a century ago. The US population subsequently quadrupled, largely through immigration to already-settled areas. Today, even in crisis, America is the richest country in the world. History, too, deserves a hearing.

Yeah, sometimes it does help to know a little history.

On this day that many traditionally think of more as the official end of summer, let’s not forget to give tribute in these difficult times to American labor — and to all the workers who have made our nation what it is today, here and abroad.