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Ambition Meets Complexity in Sub-Saharan Africa

Review of The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs And the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk (Doubleday 2013) 272 pages; $26.95.

Jeffrey Sachs, the world-renowned professor of economics and Special Advisor to the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the Millennium Development Goals, makes a bold claim: Extreme poverty can be eradicated and the means for doing so may not be as difficult as we imagine.

In The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and journalist Nina Munk details the six years she spent following Jeffrey Sachs around Africa, tracking the development of his Millennium Villages Project, a $120 million effort that began in 2005, aimed at reducing poverty through an integrated approach.

Through the project, 15 impoverished areas in Sub-Saharan Africa were selected to receive large infusions of foreign aid and develop sustainable agriculture, water and energy, education, health, and business infrastructure. The hope was that these models could then be replicated to completely eradicate extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and eventually the world.

The Millennium Villages Project served as the vehicle to test Sachs's utopian thesis: "that with enough focus, enough determination, and enough money we can 'end the suffering of those still trapped in poverty.'" Munk describes Sachs as having the gift of "reducing huge and complex issues to their essence." He is no doubt a brilliant man, having received tenure as a Harvard University economics professor at age 28 and advised the development strategy of numerous economies in turmoil. Sachs's new plan was appealing and people wanted to believe his approach would alter the status quo and decisively transform impoverished lives. After all, who wouldn't want to believe that poverty could be eradicated?

Sachs's extraordinary commitment to help the poorest of the poor is laudable. Yet his direct, simplistic approach leaves much room for questioning, especially in terms of its perception of the very people it is intended to help. Through his adamant belief in the power of financial aid to lift people out of poverty, his plan seemingly overlooks the capacity of the poor to be protagonists of their own development, and instead assigns the developed world the responsibility of "saving" those in poverty.

On a practical level, it is important to consider the track record of foreign aid and its relative ineffectiveness in jumpstarting prosperity. "Since the 1960s, more than $700 billion in foreign aid has been poured into Sub-Saharan Africa, yet the region is poorer than ever," states Munk. Sachs however believed that if foreign aid had failed it was because enough hadn't yet been committed to the developing world.

Munk's account of Sachs's work in the millennium villages highlights the stark reality that many of the challenges in Africa are too complex to be overcome by an increase in money and goods. In response to Sachs's promises of great advancement through the millennium villages, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni warned him, "You know, in these countries of Africa, we have many problems. This is not India or China. There are no markets. There is no network. No rails. No roads. We have no political cohesion." Attempting to create these features, without fully knowing and accepting the reality on the ground and the cultural underpinnings of a region, can prove to be a recipe for failure. The remains of wellintentioned, yet incomplete or dysfunctional development projects that litter Sub-Saharan Africa serve as the evidence.

But to Sachs's credit, the Millennium Villages Project staff was composed not only of foreigners, but also indigenous African experts who spoke the local language and knew the cultural implications of their respective areas. Appointed to lead the millennium villages at the ground level, these experts were eager to help their respective areas and gladly welcomed the increase in attention and infusion of resources provided through the project.

Ahmed Maalim Mohamed, the head of the millennium village in Dertu, Kenya, aimed to create a livestock market in the village so that the pastoralists of Dertu could have the opportunity to buy and sell their animals without traveling to other cities, the closest being 60 miles north. But despite Mohamed's efforts and prompting, the people of Dertu showed minimal interest in developing the area on their own. Dertu, an area prone to floods, droughts, and tribal violence, and lacking markets, roads, and electricity, served primarily as a pass-through point for pastoralists due to its water source.Its few inhabitants were content to remain dependent on the aid of international organizations or travel to other areas to meet their needs. Mohamed was frustrated but recognized the dilemma. "What can we do? We cannot enforce. We try to explain. We want to empower. But no one can come and change them if they do not want to change themselves."

Despite this reality, the initiative turned the pastoral landscape of Dertu into a sort of "shanty town," which encouraged people to stay and collect free goods instead of moving on to other more connected areas, as they had done before. The area appeared more developed, with a few small businesses, a hospital with increased care capability, and even tin roofs (a sign of wealth in rural Africa). While these advancements provided the people of Dertu hope for a better future, they were fueled by financial dependency, not sustained wealth creation. What would happen when the Millennium Villages Project ended and the flow of cash ceased?

In Ruhiira, Uganda, the other millennium village profiled by Munk, Sachs, and his team decided that the maize crop should be developed through a $300,000 donation of high-yield seeds and chemical fertilizer to increase food output and diversify agricultural production. The villagers begrudgingly complied, though it was not a common crop in that part of Uganda and was actually considered very low quality. "Prison food," they called it.

The production of corn was very successful, resulting in a large surplus. However, this excess corn could not be properly stored and consequently attracted vermin. Moreover, there were no markets in the region that wished to purchase this excess maize, and the farmers ended up selling the maize for far less than the cost of input. Sachs, described by Bono as the "squeaky wheel that roars," nonetheless barreled on with his poverty alleviation strategy, despite the advice from others to slow down and evaluate the potential impact of these decisions. Though warned by major donor agencies that his proposal to distribute free anti-malaria bed nets to all Tanzanians was a "hand out not a hand up" and an unsustainable approach that would destroy local bed net producers, Sachs continued the push, lobbying the president of Tanzania and the World Health Organization (WHO). His efforts culminated in the issuance of WHO official guidelines calling for the mass distribution of "free or highly subsidized" insecticide-treated mosquito nets to all Africans at risk for Malaria. Appealing to emotion, Sachs would say in speeches, "Either you leave people to die or you decide to do something about it." He created the impression that if you opposed his aid strategy then you must be apathetic, coldhearted, or simply do not consider saving the poor from curable conditions to be a moral obligation.

In the wake of Sachs's actions, the prevalence of malaria cases in Africa dropped considerably and progress was visible in the millennium villages. Through the project, classrooms were built, wells and latrines were dug, nurses were recruited, and the livelihood of the people had visibly improved. It would be unfair to consider Sachs's efforts a complete failure and Munk does not make this claim. Yet it is difficult to determine whether this progress would've inevitably occurred without Sachs's involvement and whether it was bolstered by the parallel benefits of globalization and trade that are sweeping the developing world. In fact, the millennium development goal of halving global poverty had already been achieved in 2010, five years earlier than projected. According to a 2013 article published by The Economist, "Between 1990 and 2010, the number of people living in extreme poverty fell by half as a share of the total population in developing countries, from 43 percent to 21 percent—a reduction of almost 1 billion people."

While poverty alleviation advances should be celebrated, it remains a vast and urgent problem. Sachs places considerable emphasis on this point. But as Munk's book illustrates, the way individuals and groups approach poverty matters. There is a difference between charity and development, and the best initiatives involve the people they are attempting to help. If locals are not directly involved in the initiatives aimed at improving their situation, then legitimacy and trust, determining factors of enduring success, may be diminished. When the Millennium Villages Project ends in 2015, the intention is for local governments to assume the responsibility of funding and maintaining the villages. However, David Siriri, the head of the millennium village in Ruhiira, seriously doubted the efficacy of this proposal. Referring to the Ugandan government, he questioned, "The government has even failed to cover its basic budget, so where will they find additional money for Ruhiira?"

The situation of the millennium village in Dertu looked no more promising. The Kenyan government had a development plan of its own and when the people of Dertu heard that their haphazard Millennium Villages Project settlements were to be destroyed and replaced by the government's version of progress, there was great dissatisfaction. Conflict broke out and the government land surveyors were chased out of town. "Without a formal government survey, there could be no land titles or property rights, and without land titles or property rights, nothing of permanence could be built in Dertu," describes Munk. The Millennium Villages Project's lack of coordination with the government's property structure undermined the legitimacy of the project and hindered the prospect of any long-term development.

Though Sachs's actions were well intentioned and demonstrated deep concern for the poor, his poverty alleviation strategy was rather impersonal with expert development theories drafted in New York, and funds and resources pouring into Africa from afar. During the six years Munk spent shadowing the Millennium Villages Project, Sachs himself visited Dertu only twice, each time for no longer than two or three hours.

An important lesson highlighted in Munk's book is that an understanding and appreciation of complexity breeds humility. If you believe poverty is complex, then you accept that a particular approach to remedying it will not always be the right one, or one that fits every situation. This is not to excuse complacency or inaction, but to encourage greater investment in discernment and in immersing oneself in the cultural landscape before acting. Listening to those entrenched in poverty and recognizing their gifts may be slower and less glamorous than the approach favored by Sachs, but may contribute to more holistic, enduring results.

While the Millennium Villages Project runs through 2015, it remains to be seen if the promised results will be achieved. However in the two villages profiled by Munk, there was no evidence to suggest that the progress produced would continue long term. There was no sustainable industry or reason for people to develop markets in these villages.

Jeffrey Sachs didn't just set out to save the lives of a few thousand people; his plan was much more ambitious than this. His goal, as Munk stated in a 2014 Hudson Institute lecture, was to "change the tide and fortune of an entire continent." Through the Millennium Villages Project's introduction of money and resources in Africa, peoples' lives were improved. However, seeking to help people realize their inherent capacity to be creative, productive members of sustainable communities is an altogether different objective that may have eluded Sachs's project.

Matthea Brandenburg is a research assistant at the Acton Institute.