Timothy Ogden

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Metrics Mania afflicts the fight against poverty | 

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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