Jeffrey Sachs’ Incredible Failure to Eradicate Poverty in Africa

Howard French writes on the hubris of Jeffrey Sachs, whose Millennium Village [MV] projects, intended to wipe out poverty by 2025, has wrought all sorts of unintended consequences. Of an MV set up in northeastern Kenya:

As MV money poured in, exciting things started happening in this singularly unpromising place, where all the water came from a single borehole and 80 percent of the population was illiterate. Tin roofs, a sure sign of new wealth, began to proliferate; the health clinic was staffed and equipped. Thanks to Sachs’ tireless fund-raising and salesmanship, big multinational companies were soon pitching in to establish mobile-phone service and provide chemically treated anti-mosquito nets.

But the road to success was not nearly as smooth—or knowable—as Sachs had predicted. The original plan was for the people of Dertu to preserve their nomadic lifestyle. But the abundance of donated food and services drew people from far and wide and induced them to settle. What had originally been little more than a watering hole for camels became a sprawling shantytown, its streets clogged with garbage. The new livestock market failed. The one water pump broke down. People began to fight among themselves for distributed goods. There was drought, followed by flooding. There were epidemics. There was theft, malingering, misreporting, and more.

The punchline:

Munk quotes the prominent development economist Esther Duflo, who puts the question at its simplest: “How do you know what would have happened without the aid? Maybe it would have been much worse. Or maybe it would have been better. We have no idea.”

The weakness that dooms most plans like the Millennium Villages to failure is best summarized by the Yale political scientist James C. Scott, in his book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. For Scott, the culprit is “high-modernist ideology,” which he defines as a “muscle-bound … self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of human production, [and] the growing satisfaction of human needs.”

In Scott’s account, high modernism inflicted its greatest damage in vast utopian campaigns like Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, the collectivization of farms in the Soviet Union, and compulsory villagization in Tanzania and Ethiopia. In each of these cases, schemes promising massive progress were forced on people by an authoritarian state that was willing and able to use “the full weight of its coercive power” to bring its designs into being.

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