Say it ain’t so!
This is a topic near and dear to my heart. Most of us grew up assuming that the world would be a better place as education, medical advances, and economies grew, as our generation took over and introduced more compassion, darn it all!
Nina Munk admired him, too. In 2006, she was commissioned by Vanity Fair to write a profile of him. She shadowed him for months as he launched the Millennium Villages Project, a bold experiment that would use a handful of African villages as his test cases. She was so inspired that she even thought of giving up journalism to join the cause. Instead she decided to write a book. “I wanted to write about Africans who live in extreme poverty,” she explains. “I wanted their stories to be heard.” Above all, she told her publisher, she wanted to write a story of hope.
The story she wound up writing is quite different. The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty is a devastating takedown of Mr. Sachs’s technocratic fantasies. It is essential reading for anyone who thinks that brilliant people with the right interventions can save the world.
The Millennium Villages Project was pitched as the most promising idea to come along in years. The aim was to smother the selected villages with help and jump-start them into self-sufficiency. The villages wouldn’t get just schools and health clinics. They’d get schools, health clinics, fertilizer, bed nets, water, food, roads, and instruction in agriculture and entrepreneurship. Mr. Sachs hoped to have 1,000 villages by 2009. He was convinced the models would be so successful that the world would be morally forced to fund the expansion of his plan throughout Africa. He was fuelled by the profound conviction that the world can be changed for the better – and that he was right and everybody else was wrong.
What he forgot was the human factor. It turns out that people are not always rational. They don’t always do what’s in their own best interests, even when the benefits are completely clear to a development economist.
Take bed nets. The greatest plague in Africa is malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes, and bed nets treated with insecticide are a great way to tackle the scourge of malaria – theoretically. But there are big logistical problems, including distribution, looting, and costs. And even if you solve those, there’s no guarantee that people will use them for the purposes intended. Sometimes they use them to protect their goats, or to catch fish. The trouble is that malaria is so prevalent that a lot of people treat it as an inevitable fact of life. Years of social marketing campaigns to promote the use of bed nets have scarcely made a difference.
I could be snarky here, but I won’t. I completely understand why Sachs thought he could help and why so many people tried. What else is there to do? It is very difficult, at any age, to observe suffering and to just shrug it off. But unfortunately, for reasons we might never understand, some people, some entire cultures, just don’t want our “help”. What we see as horror – high childhood mortality rates, disease, extreme poverty – they apparently see as just normal life.
At every turn, Mr. Sachs’s master plan was undermined by culture. In the remote Kenyan village of Dertu, which is located in a vast and arid borderland dominated by Somali camel-herders, the planners decided to set up a local livestock market so that the herders wouldn’t have to travel to a far more distant market. The market flopped. Why? Because Somali nomadic pastoralists don’t think like us. To them, time isn’t money, and spending three or four days trekking to the distant market was no big deal. Also, as Ms. Munk writes, the whole concept of selling their livestock is antithetical to Somali values. The more camels they have, the richer they feel. “Somalis hoard camels, even when it makes no good economic sense to do so.”
In Dertu, Jeffrey Sachs was revered as the Great Professor. But gradually it became clear that even he didn’t have all the answers. As Ahmed Mohamed, the local Millennium Fund project manager, sighed, “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.”
Does that sound like your grandfather or what?
Ok, a teeny, tiny bit of snark. I have a friend from South Sudan who explained to me that in his village culture, cattle = wealth. The more cattle, the wealthier. If little ‘ol me understood it within the past few years, why can’t the professors of the world get it? There is a listening problem, perhaps. Because they know that they are “right” on almost any metric, they assume that people will jump at the opportunity to join modernity. But there are powerful forces preventing that. Think gravity.