Building the Dream

Why lasting success eluded an experiment in “scientific” foreign aid

Western efforts to reduce poverty overseas have long been plagued by two very human tendencies: we yearn for simple solutions and we crave quick results. Celebrated economist Jeffrey Sachs played to these tendencies when he announced in 2005 he would end extreme poverty in isolated and desperately poor African communities within five years. Most development professionals shook their heads in disbelief.

Journalism suffers from a parallel affliction, especially in these days of news written to convince rather than to inform: so many reporters want the story to make a grand statement that speaks to common wisdom, reinforcing or critiquing our prejudices. Nina Munk succumbed to this urge when she framed her insightful account of Sachs and his Millennium Villages Project (MVP) as an investigation into whether aid can ever work. I shook my head in disbelief.

Sachs’s audacious idea was to concentrate a significant amount of aid spending in a handful of villages, addressing all major problems at once (health, education, agriculture, water and sanitation, environment, energy and more). The MVP was to be a demonstration project, lighting the way for governments and donors to take the program to scale.

Assigned to write a profile of Sachs for Vanity Fair, Munk travelled with him to Africa for the project’s launch. She then spent six years following its fortunes in two of the villages: Dertu, a community of semi-nomadic herders in northeastern Kenya, and Ruhiira, a banana-farming one in southwestern Uganda.

Munk portrays herself as an even-handed witness, unburdened—and unenlightened—by previous knowledge of development or of Africa. Her reporting on the messy contradictions of local development work—the gaps between needs, expectations and achievements—shows verve, purpose, compassion and keen observation. The narrative arc is unsurprising: the journalist discovers the bully under Sachs’s brilliance and, once the MVP’s outsized objectives meet problem after problem, her curiosity dwindles.

The heroes of the tale, and Munk’s primary interlocutors, are the African project leaders in the two villages, two young professionals who rose from poverty by dint of luck and their own wits, determined to use their PhDs to benefit their poor compatriots. Her riveting portraits of them offer crucial historical context for the struggles of their peoples.

Munk charts how their enthusiasm, buoyed by the project’s initial success, was eroded by the villages’ innumerable difficulties. We learn how they tried to bring a sense of reality to Sachs’s grand plans and how, after repeated clashes with higher-ups in New York, each came to acknowledge that progress was fitful at best and could not happen at the pace Sachs believed possible.

Munk’s Sachs is boundlessly self-confident, clever, sophisticated and obsessed—a condescending know-it-all with a solution for every problem and nothing but scorn for doubters. A full Harvard professor at 28, famous for designing the radical free-market reforms that stopped Bolivia’s and Poland’s slide into chaos, Sachs viewed himself as a “clinical economist,” called in when the patient is in cardiac arrest in order to shock the economy back into life. His failure to replicate the feat in Russia in the early 1990s apparently did little to damage his standing or his ego.

After Russia, the next house call Dr. Sachs made was to Africa. His landmark 2001 report for the World Health Organization made a compelling business case for treating the diseases laying waste to the continent, such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. “Because,” Munk quotes a leading health advocate, “you can’t have development if everybody is sick all the time.”

Sachs came to believe that, even more than illness, poverty itself was the trap that kept people poor—what Munk calls “an overwhelming interconnected burden of disease, illiteracy, high fertility rates, dismal agricultural productivity, lack of capital, weak or nonexistent infrastructure, debt, hunger, drought, [and] malnutrition.” Piecemeal efforts were doomed, he concluded, and in his bestselling 2005 book, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, he called for a “big push” of foreign aid and technical expertise to eradicate poverty once and for all.

To those who said $700 billion in aid to sub-Saharan Africa since the 1960s had not achieved much, Sachs insisted we had not spent nearly enough. He estimated that $250 billion a year, double total current aid spending, could end extreme poverty by 2025. “It’s much cheaper than having wars,” he told Munk. “And it’s much cheaper than having mass migration.”

Rereading The End of Poverty now, eight years later, I still find his case for aid compelling. He favours not individual charity but public investment in “the schools, clinics, roads, electricity, ports, soil nutrients, clean drinking water, and the like” that can create a healthy, skilled workforce and an integrated national economy. Such public spending (sometimes underwritten by aid, as in Korea and Taiwan) has underlain the success of every country that has ever emerged from poverty.

Also evident in his book, however, is the rather authoritarian worldview that would later haunt the Millennium Villages Project. Sachs sees development as a technical matter, to be achieved with cash and the right policies, rather than a process, political and social as well as economic, by which people strengthen the institutions that can sustain improvements in their lives.

Given his reputation, his voice carried; when Jeffrey Sachs called, prime ministers and billionaires picked up the phone. He gave speech after speech, teamed up with Bono, and, within months, aid enthusiasm reached a historic apogee. And then came the curious twist that is the subject of Nina Munk’s book. Donor governments did not hike aid anywhere near the amount Sachs deemed necessary, so he decided to show them the way. With $5 million in seed money from an American cable TV magnate, in 2005 the Millennium Villages Project was born.

If Sachs’s theory of development was relentlessly macro—prosperity depends on a steady rise in public services and infrastructure—the MVP was outrageously micro, based on the notion that spending $120 per person per year in an isolated village could end extreme poverty in short order. The MVP would bypass and essentially replace government, providing clean water, basic health care and education, and distributing anti-malarial bed nets, fertilizer, hybrid seeds and so on.

Initial results in a pilot village were hugely encouraging: maize production tripled; malaria infections fell by two thirds; school attendance shot up. Armed with this good news, Sachs garnered another $50 million from financier/philanthropist George Soros, and expanded to 14 villages, including the two Munk explores in detail.

What distinguished the MVP from the programs of Oxfam, CARE or World Vision? Munk says it was his plan, a turgid 150-page handbook, drawn up by a committee of academic specialists. She calls it a “method” to be proved: in essence, introduce scientific approaches that work, reinforce them with training and education, and encourage community participation. No news here. Such “integrated rural development” has met with both success and failure all over the world.

What makes the MVP unique is what is not in the plan. Good development projects complement technical assistance with efforts to address crucial social and political questions such as discrimination against women or citizen interaction with government. Despite a nod to gender equality, Sachs’s technocratic—what Munk calls “scientific”—approach, in contrast, relies overwhelmingly on modern technology and seeks, above all, economic efficiency.

As Munk points out, the handbook ignores common challenges such as crime, epidemics and natural disasters, all of which undermined the MVP’s initial success. She makes mincemeat of the MVP’s textbook assumptions. Her sensitive account of Dertu, the Kenyan village, for example, shows why people used anti-malarial mosquito nets to protect their goats instead of their children (goats often ensure family survival) and why they had no use for the livestock market that MVP worked so hard to promote (people did not view travel to the existing market three days away as time lost).

What is more, although technology can relieve suffering, even in the hands of Jeffrey Sachs it is not likely to get at why people in these villages are poor. In the Ugandan village, Ruhiira, hybrid seeds and fertilizer expanded agricultural production, and better marketing eliminated intermediaries. But rats ate the bumper corn crop and greater efficiency seemed to enrich a few and impoverish others. As Munk notes with some frustration, “every intervention … had unintended consequences.”

Munk recounts a prescient exchange with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni in which Sachs extolled the potential of modern agriculture and urged the president to supply fertilizer to all his country’s farmers. Museveni, who had been only mildly interested in Sachs’s appeal, then looked at him seriously: “This is not India or China. There are no markets. There is no network. No rails. No roads. We have no political cohesion.”

Not all was failure. Munk chronicles Dertu’s growing prosperity: tin roofs, vinyl flooring over the sand, the first television set and the sudden advent of mobile communications. Halfway through the MVP’s five-year plan, “people’s lives were slowly improving. There were many noticeable changes: new classrooms and health clinics, better roads, safer drinking water, ample supplies of staple foods, the growing use of cell phones.” However, “[MVP] staff was stretched to capacity, budgets were tight, and there was a limit to how much could be accomplished.” The health clinic in the Ugandan village Ruhiira, for example, still had no running water and electricity was intermittent. Munk concludes, “the long-term goals of the Millennium Villages Project—to set people on the path of sustainable economic progress, to teach them self-sufficiency, to lift them out of extreme poverty—were as elusive as ever.”

She then poses a question that has dogged village-level development work for decades: what happens when the funding ends? The local doctor, after a ten-hour shift in Ruhiira’s bare-bones operating room, tells her, “Without the Millennium Project there would be no drugs, there would be no surgical equipment, there would be no way to operate the generator—I would be redundant most of the time … when the funding stops, most likely everything we have done will be put to waste.”

Sachs had a “solution.” In mid 2008 he urged his staff “to think big,” to move beyond social work and become entrepreneurs promoting export farms that could attract foreign investment. His field leaders had no luck convincing him such dreams were unrealistic; the business plans they laboured to produce found no takers.

By then, Sachs had extended the project from five years to ten and fundraising had become an obsession. In Munk’s telling, the MVP fell into a trap not unfamiliar in the development world: the project began to pay more attention to marketing than to programming, proposing activities based not on best practices, but on the goods corporations would donate or on what might appeal to investors.

By the time the MVP launched phase two (again with most of the financing from George Soros) in 2011, drought had wiped out Dertu’s visible gains, war had done the same in an MVP village in Mali and Ruhiira’s advances were looking doubtful. Despite Munk’s detailed and sympathetic portrayal of the villagers (bound by tradition, yet eager to learn and deeply frustrated by the bungling of powerful outsiders), and despite her reiterations of the MVP’s achievements, the reader feels only sorry and helpless.

Munk’s focus is narrow—the book is reportage, not analysis. She glosses over aid’s history of vying approaches, omits its lively current debate. Yet she proffers her research as evidence for answering fundamental questions: Can extreme poverty be eradicated? Can people be lifted out of poverty? And she concludes with a verdict on the entire enterprise of international development assistance: the unfathomable complexity of Africa will thwart the best-laid plans.

Thanks to this unfortunate overreach, The Idealist ends up reinforcing three erroneous common wisdoms: that aid is about giving people living in poverty things we think they need, that development is mainly about economic growth and, most regrettably, that the very possibility of contributing to positive change is dubious if not hopeless.

Beguiled by Sachs’s timetable and economic bent, Munk underplays the long-term impact of the improved health and education the MVP achieved. Unquestionably, literate and healthy people are better placed to improve their lives and those of their villages. Neither does Munk examine the social and political changes the MVP may have sparked, such as attitudes toward women’s education, organizational capacity to make demands on government or government’s willingness to respond to such demands—all of which could bring long-lasting payoffs.

Munk’s evident empathy for the villagers slips when she assumes that aid should “teach self-sufficiency” to people whose resourcefulness in circumstances that would overwhelm most Canadians is nothing short of astounding. So what if their sophisticated coping strategies include taking handouts from rich westerners?

Aid can support the efforts of citizens and government to deal with the challenges they face. It can help build capacities and institutions that last long beyond any project’s lifetime. At the village level, I have seen how Oxfam’s support for farmers’ organizations in Mozambique and Ethiopia helped them gain clout in markets, how small grants to local women’s organizations in Zimbabwe and South Africa transformed attitudes and won improved public services. On a larger scale, bilateral aid to Malawi allowed government to hire hundreds of frontline health workers, raise their wages and reopen the nursing school.

Munk attributes many of the MVP’s failings to Sachs’s personality. The Idealist is indeed a case study of how being supremely smart does not prevent you from being supremely dumb. And my goodness, how many organizations, companies and governments are led by bullies.

Although Munk does not go there, I see a broader lesson in Sachs’s desire to wish away the roles of government and citizen activism. Viewing development as a technical exercise avoids the messy and often unpalatable arena of political and social struggle. But that is the realm in which power is apportioned and, I believe, the best hope for long-term development success.