The Not-So-Great Professor: Jeffrey Sachs' Incredible Failure to Eradicate Poverty in Africa

Jeffrey Sachs was certain he knew how to rid the world of poverty. He even said it would be easy. The world had other ideas.
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Ruhiira, Uganda, is one of the villages that served as a laboratory for Sachs' theories about aid. (PHOTO: GUILLAUME BONN)

Ruhiira, Uganda, is one of the villages that served as a laboratory for Sachs' theories about aid. (PHOTO: GUILLAUME BONN)

The early sections of Nina Munk’s book about the economist Jeffrey Sachs read like a celebration of a boy genius. No, strike that: Sachs piles up so many achievements so quickly that the word genius sounds somehow inadequate.

By the age of 13, he was taking college math. Later, he got near-perfect scores on his SATs and graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, where by 28 he was a tenured professor. Two years later, he was advising the Bolivian government on how to administer economic “shock therapy,” designed to break the spell of hyperinflation. This led to an even bigger triumph: masterminding Poland’s transition to a market economy in 1989, as communism collapsed in Eastern Europe.

Today, though, Sachs is best known for his obsession with the noble idea of ending global poverty “once and for all.” In his 2005 best seller, The End of Poverty, he argued that with proper planning and funding, extreme poverty could be wiped off the Earth by 2025.

Months before the book’s publication, Sachs began work on a project designed to put his ideas in action in a handful of villages in sub-Saharan Africa. Munk, a reporter who had little prior experience in Africa, economics, or the amorphous field of “development,” spent six years following him on his trips to the continent and visiting on her own to assess his achievements there. The reader can feel her learning along the way, not just about her subject—the “Great Professor,” as one of his African employees calls him—but also about his ambitions and their distance from reality.

The Millennium Villages Handbook detailed "intervention by intervention," how to reorder village life and thereby eradicate poverty—all in a slim 147 pages.

The more Munk gets to know Sachs, the more she perceives in him a deep unwillingness to concede any shortcomings in his ideas or their implementation. The first glimpse of this trait comes during an account of Sachs’s efforts, after his work in Poland, to help fashion an economic-reform program for Russia during the Yeltsin years. Today, these efforts are widely seen as having ended in failure. Munk quotes a 1999 speech by Joseph Stiglitz, then the chief economist for the World Bank, in which he blamed the failure of the Russian reform program on “an excessive reliance on textbook models of economics.” Sachs was not named, but he was the clear target. “Not surprisingly,” said Stiglitz, the program’s authors argued that “the medicine was right; it was only that the patient failed to follow the doctor’s orders!”

Gradually, as Munk becomes more attuned to this feature of Sachs’s thinking, and more confident in her judgments, it becomes clear that she has no interest in burnishing the Great Professor’s ample legend. On the contrary: Her book is a devastating portrait of hubris and its consequences.

SACHS BECAME OBSESSED WITH Africa during his first visit to the continent, a trip to Zambia in 1995, when the underfunded health care system had been totally overwhelmed by AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. The suffering and death Sachs saw shocked him, and he began reading everything he could about poverty, devouring works on agriculture, nutrition, disease, education, and commerce, synthesizing what he’d learned for papers and reports. Eventually he devised a massive experiment in foreign intervention at the village level. If it succeeded (or, in Sachs’ view, when it succeeded) in a handful of villages, it could then be expanded to cover entire countries and even—why not?—all of Africa.

The Millennium Villages Project was formally launched in June 2006, with support from the Earth Institute of Columbia University (of which Sachs is the director), the United Nations Development Program, and donors like George Soros. By the end of 2006, it included 12 villages in 10 sub-Saharan countries; the goal was to put each on a path toward economic growth by investing heavily for five years in food production, health care, education, and infrastructure.

Given the deeply mixed record of development assistance to Africa, this was a bold wager. Decades of aid totaling billions of dollars had failed to lift much of the continent out of poverty. And, as the economist William Easterly has noted, Sachs’ “Big Plan,” for all its claims of novelty, bore striking similarity to ideas about foreign aid that had been propounded since the 1950s. But Sachs did more than promise success where others had failed; he also guaranteed sustainability. According to a memo circulated to Sachs’s senior staff, “When the five-year [Millennium Villages] funding stops, the MVs should be able to continue their economic progress without a loss of momentum, a drop in living standards, or a decline in social services.”

This goal was premised on the notion that development can be accomplished simply by assembling the right set of instructions, and then paying for their implementation. Over and over Sachs boasted that, with his plan, beating poverty wasn’t just doable, but easy.

“The good news to me is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with African agriculture that can’t be quickly improved,” he told a London audience in 2007, in a typical display of his against-the-grain optimism. “There’s overwhelming systemic evidence that you can improve yields by a factor of two or three ... and that productivity won’t take a generation to double, but could be doubled actually from one growing season to the next.”

Criticism from development experts didn’t bother Sachs. What better idea did they have to stop the dying? Anyway, he’d done his reading, looked at the data. He had a plan, and he was sure it was a good one.

MUNK DEPICTS THE ON-the-ground reality of the Millennium Villages as seen through the eyes of Sachs’ African collaborators: enthusiastic, energetic people who committed his maxims about progress to memory. One of her main characters is Ahmed Maalim Mohamed, the MV representative assigned to Dertu, a remote and desolate locality in northeastern Kenya. He arrived from Belgium armed with a freshly minted doctorate and his copy of the 147-page, single-spaced Millennium Villages Handbook, which detailed, “intervention by intervention,” how he was to reorder village life and thereby eradicate poverty.

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.

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF DOUBLEDAY)

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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.

Similar problems befell other villages. As the villagers’ disillusionment with the project grew, so did Munk’s disillusionment with Sachs. Again and again she saw him move the goalposts or seek additional funding rather than admit that he was failing—that he and the 29 other academics who wrote the Millennium Villages Handbook had been unable to anticipate all the social and environmental complexities at work in even the smallest of villages. “To a large extent,” Munk writes, “the success of the Millennium Villages Project depended on Sachs’ idea of progress.”

Confronted with the inability of his villages to sustain themselves financially, he kept changing the plan, improvising frantically: One moment the answer was to attract tourists, the next it was to transform peasants—who for generations had struggled to grow just enough food to survive—into credit-worthy entrepreneurs harvesting cash crops for export.

The economists in the Millennium Villages headquarters in New York thought Dertu was thriving long after it had begun to fail, and they kept pushing Mohamed to follow the prescribed path up the “development ladder” to prosperity. When someone finally examined the village’s books, all manner of underperformance and discrepancies came to light, and he was "red. “I am feeling betrayed,” he told Munk. “I am feeling I was abandoned.”

SACHS HAD, TO A large extent, staked his career on the Millennium Villages—as had the economists who came to work for him. So it is unsurprising that their progress reports put a positive spin on things. According to a 2010 analysis by Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development and Gabriel Demombynes of the World Bank, Sachs systematically overstates the impact of his work. There was some progress in the Millennium Villages—rising income, better health—but Sachs ignored the fact that similar progress had been recorded in many of the parts of Africa untouched by his project. This is unsurprising: In recent years, the economies of sub-Saharan Africa have been among the fastest-growing in the world.

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.

Though much smaller in scale than these examples—and certainly less deadly—the Millennium Villages Project proceeded along similar lines. “No administrative system,” Scott writes, “is capable of representing any existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematized process of abstraction and simplification.” In the case of the Millennium Villages, this simplification was embodied by the 147-page handbook, written by academics in New York with insufficient regard for hard-won local knowledge. What Sachs failed to recognize, more than any individual research finding, is that rural Africa is thick with the wreckage of failed development projects more or less imposed by outsiders, and that Western powers have adopted new, often contradictory aid policies every decade or so, never publicly acknowledging their mistakes or owning up to the collateral damage they’ve inflicted on African lives.

BY THE END OF Munk’s book, the Millennium Villages Project is winding down (it is officially scheduled to end in 2015). Sachs seems defeated by Africa, but defeated in the manner of charismatic savior figures everywhere, for whom setbacks only ever spur quests for new, bigger stages. He campaigned to run the World Bank. He wrote about the need for a “new progressive movement.” He published a flailing jeremiad titled “A World Adrift,” and talked about a “very, very dark cloud” threatening to envelop humanity.

“For a long time, I wanted to simplify the problems by putting aside the rich world’s issues and so forth and focusing on extreme poverty,” he tells Munk. “But it’s all interconnected.”

Munk asks where the money will come from to finish the work in the Millennium Villages. “It is what it is,” he says. “And that’s not meant to be callous.”

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