The Idealist

Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty

[Amazon Link]

Another book I put on my to-read list years ago, and only just now got around to. Thanks to the UNH Interlibrary Loan folks for getting it from Boston College; boo to whatever BC student (or, who knows, faculty member) who underlined, starred, dog-eared, and in one instance dropped an F-bomb in the margin.

They feel strongly about African poverty at BC, I guess.

Anyway, the author is Vanity Fair editor Nina Munk, who embedded herself with the efforts of superstar economist Jeffrey Sachs to alleviate poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. It was a massive project, diverting millions of dollars in private/public aid to so-called "Millennium Villages" in order to bootstrap them out of their grinding poverty and into a new era of (at least relative) prosperity.

And… it didn't work. Or at least not as originally envisioned. You can't drop piles of money into an area and not see some important changes. But the poor are still poor, eking out a pastoral existence, subject to the whims of climate, corrupt government, and local criminals.

As Munk sketches out, Sachs had impeccable credentials and the best of intentions. And he wasn't above bullying donors into supporting his efforts, essentially telling them that if they didn't shell out, they were condemning millions of Africans to remain in miserable poverty. He seems to be one of those folks, like Steve Jobs or Elizabeth Holmes who could create a Reality Distortion Field while explicating their vision. (As far as fraudulence goes, Sachs lies somewhere in the middle of the Jobs-Holmes spectrum.)

Hubris was also maxed out in Sachs's case. Grand plans were conceived, only to bump into mundane reality much later. For example, let's get those African farmers to produce banana flour! Unfortunately, there wasn't much of a market for banana flour…

Sachs also butted his head against the local culture. As Deirdre McCloskey has pointed out tirelessly, capitalism (she says "trade-tested betterment") can work wonders in a culture whose values are compatible with it. Time and again, the villagers who Sachs was trying to help … demonstrated that those values were not that important to them.