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

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.

Copyright Pacific Standard

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.

Ruhiira, Uganda, is one of the villages that served as a laboratory for Sachs’ theories about aid. (PHOTO: GUILLAUME BONN)
September 17, 2013 • By  • 80 Comments

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.

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