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Metrics Mania afflicts the fight against poverty

Metrics Mania

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.

One way to measure the quality and reliability of a dialogue is by the amount of personal insults or attacks it generates.

As a general rule, the more personal attacks you have the less reliable the information. Some philosopher gave this approach a Latin name – ad hominem – noting that such argumentation constitutes a ‘logical fallacy.’

It can also be quite entertaining, which at least brings more attention to this very important debate over how to improve the effectiveness of aid and development projects.  I certainly don’t think Clemens’ arguments are fallacious. They are important and widely regarded as legitimate critiques of Sachs’ approach — and as the spear point end of a broader push for metrics in aid & development.

But the ad hominem stuff does make you wonder what else is going on. Aren’t all these people basically trying to do the same thing — reduce poverty? Why such hostility?

Metrics Mania! 

Am I arguing that it should be acceptable to do things that can’t be measured? At the risk of sounding goofy, how do you measure happiness or hope? Less goofy: If aid allows those living in a poor community to feel valued, no longer neglected, is that worthwhile even if you can’t put hard numbers on its impact?

Albert Einstein said:  “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Metrics Mania

For a series of articles I’m calling Metrics Mania, I start with (well, this post and) a recent interview I did with Jeff Sachs about the criticism of the Millennium Villages and the push for metrics in general. I also asked Sachs to say something agreeable about an economist many see as his arch-enemy, Bill Easterly, which he does.

I intend to follow up tomorrow with a report on a visit I made a few months ago to one of Sachs’ Millennium Village Projects in southern Rwanda. Later stories will feature interviews with others working to improve the lives of the poor and the impact of aid or development.

To be clear, I am not anti-metrics. I have a science background and anyone who reads Humanosphere knows I like evidence and don’t like squishy thinking. And so far as I can tell, everyone in the aid and development community wants to know if their efforts are paying off.

But as Einstein says not everything worth doing can be measured.

And too great an obsession for hard numbers may turn into numerology, mania, and even undermine the very aims the metrics crowd claims to be championing.


About Author

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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.