Humanosphere is on hiatus. Many thanks to our web design, development and hosting partner Culture Foundry for keeping the site active while we plan our next move. Culture Foundry builds, evolves and supports next-level websites and applications for clients you know, and you couldn’t ask for a better partner to help you thrive in digital. If you’re considering an ambitious website design or development project, we encourage you to make them your very first call.

Why is everyone always picking on Jeff Sachs?

Jeff Sachs

Okay, that’s not my real question. I think I know why people pick on Jeff Sachs.

Jeff Sachs
Earth Institute

Sachs, an economist and director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, makes bold statements. He criticizes powerful people. He’s in cahoots with the United Nations (I believe he owns a black helicopter). He frequently expresses pure outrage at the indifference shown to problems of global poverty and inequity. Heck, Sachs is influential and outspoken. It’s healthy to push back at such folks.

Lately, the pushback is focused on an initiative Sachs and his gang launched a few years ago called the Millennium Villages Project. It’s intended to show by 2015 how even small, inexpensive but targeted investments can make a big difference in poor communities. Fourteen communities in Africa were selected for the project.

You remember the Millennium Development Goals, right? The Millennium Villages Project (MVP) was intended to be a proof of concept, to show it doesn’t take a lot of money (about $120 per person per year) to break the cycle of poverty in poor countries and create sustainable economic growth.

That’s nice, you say. No, it’s not! Not necessarily nice at all, say the wonks.

My real question is why all sorts of people have suddenly started jumping up and down demanding to argue with Sachs about whether the project works. To be clear, few critics appear to be saying the MVP is failing. They just say there’s no solid evidence it is working and they want Sachs to publicly defend the project.

A great overview about this debate heating up — about to “go nuclear” — comes from the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting, who says:

Given the profile of the Millennium Villages chief advocate, Jeff Sachs, favourite economist to Bono and Geldof, and not a man to take criticism lightly, this wonk war could go nuclear.

The war of the wonks began with a report submitted to the World Bank by the Center for Global Development’s Michael Clemens and Gabriel Demombynes. Basically, they said the MVP needs better efficacy data:

These weaknesses include the subjective choice of intervention sites, the subjective choice of comparison sites, the lack of baseline data on comparison sites, the small sample size, and the short time horizon.

Holy cow! Them are fighting words! (I guess … for wonks anyway)

Sachs and his colleagues responded to the criticism, in a lengthy report basically saying Clemens and Demombynes don’t understand the MVP or its methods for evaluating progress:

Clemens and Demombynes also suggest that efforts to take interventions to scale should wait at least 15 years until evidence of long-term effects can be proven and sustained. This assertion cannot be taken seriously. There is a deep, established, proven record of what needs to be done in many crucial areas.

At this, the wonks came out of the woodworks, cheering for more scrutiny of the MVP, calling out Sachs to meet them in the street and even suggesting conspiracy theories involving secret meetings.

One of the more sedate, thoughtful and, for me, readable and comprehensible responses came from Chris Blattman in which he asks: “Do the Millennium Villages Work?

Short answer: we have no idea ….The ‘big push’ idea of development suggests that an educational intervention is limited by health or other constraints, and that a program to lift multiple constraints at the same time will have disproportionate impacts. This could be one of the biggest and most important hypotheses waiting to be examined in all of development.

I think Blattman sums it up nicely, and may help prevent a nuclear wonk war.

Now, I’m all for evidence-based development. A lot of it isn’t based on evidence or proven strategies. But given all the other projects out there that are either clearly not working at all or are so politically motivated it would even make Henry Kissinger wince, I do wonder why all the fuss over Sachs’ MVP project.

As Blattman says, we don’t know if Sachs’ idea will work and we also don’t know it won’t.

I can’t tell whose method of evaluation is better. But let’s hope the wonk war won’t send the wrong message, that these kinds of things aren’t worth trying unless we can be absolutely certain that we can measure everything and prove beyond a shadow of doubt that they are effective.

Most things in life don’t come with that kind of proof.


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.