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Sustaining Development

OpenCanada talked to Nina Munk about Jeffrey Sachs, the Millennium Villages, and measuring the effectiveness of aid.

By: /
2 October, 2013
By: Alia Dharssi
Global Journalism Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto

In 2006, economist Jeffrey Sachs launched the Millennium Villages Project, a controversial undertaking that aims to end extreme poverty in participating villages by jump-starting the local economy with large investments in agriculture, health, education, and infrastructure. 

Over the course of six years, journalist Nina Munk studied the project, spending an extended amount of time with locals in two Millennium Villages: Ruhiira, Uganda, and Dertu, Kenya. In her new book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, Munk traces the development of the Millennium Villages Project and discusses the complexities of creating sustained economic development. She talked to OpenCanada about her experiences and her views on the impact of foreign aid.

What inspired you to write about Jeffrey Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project?

My first introduction to Jeffrey Sachs was his best-selling book, The End of Poverty. I found it deeply compelling. I didn’t know much about the topic at the time, but I cared a lot about the problems he talks about in his book. Writing about his projects became an opportunity for me to dig deeply into a problem I feel is one of the biggest and most vital problems of our time.

Before this book, I spent many years writing about finance and the concerns of the very rich for Vanity Fair, Fortune Magazine, Forbes. By 2006, I had begun to feel very acutely that the growing disparity on the globe between the rich and the poor was something that needed to be discussed in a much more open way than it was. Writing about Jeffrey Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project was a way to act on that feeling.

What kind of impact do you hope to make with this book?

I feel strongly that my book not only offers people insight into what it means to live in extreme poverty, but that it humanizes the problem. It also makes very clear the complexity of economic development, and how excruciatingly difficult it is to lift people out of extreme poverty. Donor countries have devoted nearly a trillion dollars at this point to trying to help the African continent move fully into the 21st century and, on so many levels, we have failed. My hope is that my book helps people understand why so much of the foreign aid money that we spend is wasted and why we’ve had so little impact.


Let’s talk about the issue of ineffective aid. What kind of problems did you discover?

One major problem I reveal in my book is that of applying theories without a proper understanding of what the situation actually is on the ground.  The way an experiment functions in a laboratory can often be very different from the way it functions in the real world. In the case of the Millennium Villages project, it turned into kind of a game of Whack-A-Mole, where every time they thought they had solved the problem, a host of other problems emerged. The unintended consequences of their actions were sometimes so numerous that they overwhelmed the underlying objective.

For example, the project decided that it was essential to increase agricultural productivity. As many people know, Africa suffers from very poor agricultural productivity. Fertilizer and high-yield seeds can help address this, but in many areas they are not available. So, the project designed a plan to introduce fertilizer and high-yield seeds in a particular village so that the villagers could start growing corn. On paper, the idea was a wonderful one. And it worked – they planted high-yield corn seeds, fertilized the fields, and produced a bumper crop. The problem was that in this particular part of Uganda no one much likes corn – in fact they refer to it as prison food.

So that was the first problem, and then there was another on top of it. The reason that many of these villages in Africa are as poor as they are is because they are completely isolated – they’re cut off from the rest of the world in a way that is almost unimaginable to those in the developed world. There are no roads. There are no rail lines. Which means that there is no way to connect to the global economy.

You can’t do very much with a bumper crop that you can’t transport to a market. The corn wound up dumped on the local market and sold for pennies on the dollar, eaten by rats, or left to rot in the middle of the town square. The disappointment of the villagers was great because they had been told producing corn would transform their lives.

This is a classic example of economists and experts in agriculture from the West trying to apply their model to the real world without adequately understanding the real-world conditions. They didn’t think through what would be required for an improvement in the agricultural yield to actually lead to a positive jolt for the economy.

Isolation on the part of development experts from the lives of the people who they are trying to help plays a significant role in the failures of foreign aid.

That’s a tough lesson. In the course of writing this book, what did learn personally about aid and poverty that really stands out for you?

The biggest lesson I learned is that there is a huge difference between charity and economic development. The Millennium Villages Project has demonstrated unquestionably that when you pour $10 million into an isolated African village, you will see magnificent, transformative results. You will see reductions in the transmission of malaria, sharp improvements in malnutrition, improved health overall, and more children in school.

These changes are significant and it is worth it for us to devote our attention and our money to help make them happen. But helping to create that kind of change is very different from helping to drive the economic development of a continent. Enabling the dramatic transformation of a village is something very different from securing its continued development over the long-term. The first kind of change can improve the health of a child, but it can’t guarantee that child will ever have a job.

Too many people involved in this field still believe that foreign aid, rather than sustained development assistance, can change the course of a continent. It can’t.

What did you see in the Millennium Villages that drove this home for you?

I saw people’s lives in the Millennium villages improve, but not necessarily in a sustainable way. There is much for the Millennium Villages project to be proud of: improvements in nutrition, improvements in health care, improvements in education, and improvements in the access to clean water and sanitation generally. Some improvements are more difficult to measure than others, and some of the data coming out of the villages has been opaque, as many critics have stated, but there were significant improvements, which I saw first hand.

A lot of the radical benefits happened in the beginning, which is what Jeffrey Sachs said would happen, because “quick wins”, as he refers to them, do in fact happen quickly; for example, when you provide free school lunches, you will immediately see remarkable results, with more children attending school, and fewer children suffering from malnourishment.

When these “quick wins” were over, it was easy for disillusion set in. It was inevitable really, because the villagers had been promised that poverty would come to an end. Again and again, I heard Jeffrey Sachs give speeches in which he promised the villagers results that haven’t and can never be accomplished. That’s partly just the way Jeffrey Sachs is – he’s a very charismatic speaker, and he’s someone with a talent for taking very big problems and simplifying them in a way that’s very appealing. But when you’re talking about the lives of human beings, it’s unfair to promise that their lives will be transformed in a way that’s not possible.

I am deeply skeptical that more than a small portion of the changes in the villages can be sustained once the project leaves. A lot depends on whether the local governments step in to fill the funding gap. Jeffrey Sachs and his team continue to insist that the local governments are stepping in and that other sources of income from donors are forthcoming, but I haven’t yet seen any clear evidence of that. And without the very substantial financial support that will be needed to sustain gains made during the project, retrenchment seems likely.

What are the key takeaways for Canadians trying to understand where and how Canada can do the most good in Africa?

Canada has really been at the forefront of advocacy for ever-greater foreign aid. In doing so, it has played a central and important role in helping to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people. But I think that Canadians should be aware, and increasingly many are, that the amount of money that we spend on foreign aid as a percentage of our GDP is actually not what counts so much as whether that money is being used effectively, which means being able to carefully measure how our foreign aid is used and what it achieves is critical.

I think we need to keep encouraging a really positive change that has occurred in the last few years, which is the move away from some of the traditional mechanisms of foreign aid to more complex ones – providing funding for startups, or low-cost loans more generally. In most poor parts of the world, and I think in Africa in particular, it is remains excruciatingly difficult for entrepreneurs to raise the capital they need.

Until you’ve seen it for yourself, it’s difficult to imagine all the hurdles an entrepreneur faces in many parts of Africa to starting business. I talk at some length in my book about an aspiring entrepreneur in the village of Ruheera in Uganda who intends to start a poultry business. He takes out a loan from a moneylender, which is risky because the loan has a very high interest rate, but he has no other alternative because he is unable to get a loan from a bank. Shortly thereafter everything that can go wrong with a new business goes wrong. In North America, people start businesses everyday and everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and the consequences can be tragic. But the consequences in an African village, when your debt is to a moneylender who is willing to take away everything you have, even if you will be left without enough to survive, are so much more severe.

It’s taken a long time for donor governments to start seeing that providing access to the credit and capital necessary for starting businesses, building infrastructure, and expanding market chains can be hugely effective.

You’ve seen the benefits and drawbacks of foreign aid up first hand. Do you think we’re getting any closer to a comprehensive solution for global poverty?

I have no idea what the solution to global poverty is and I don’t pretend to have any idea. I do know for sure that it will be more complicated than anything that Jeffrey Sachs has proposed. Africa in so many ways is growing and improving by leaps and bounds. The question is: what, exactly, is leading to those improvements? I think that it is a complicated and rather unpredictable mix of factors that includes foreign aid, economic investment, investment in infrastructure, as well as more transparent and accountable governance. It is impossible to point to a single solution for poverty, and we don’t need a single solution if we can better understand the combination of factors necessary to bringing populations fully into the global economy.

Interview by Alia Dharssi. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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