Eight years ago, when Jeffrey Sachs launched an ambitious project to fight global poverty, he surely didn't suspect that it might end up calling into question his work as one of America's leading economists. In the 1980s and '90s, Sachs had made headlines with his work advising reformist governments in Latin America and Eastern Europe -- a record that firmly established him as a first-rank public intellectual and ensured him easy access to the offices of presidents and prime ministers from Warsaw to Moscow. There's a reason the New York Times once described him as "probably the most important economist in the world."
Then, in 2005, Sachs embarked on his most ambitious undertaking yet. He vowed to attack the root causes of poverty by establishing a series of model villages across Africa that would demonstrate the efficacy of targeted measures to address the corrosive lack of health care, education, and employment that keep so many people around the world in a pernicious "poverty trap."
"We can banish extreme poverty in our generation," he wrote that year in Time. "We have enough [financial resources] on the planet to make sure, easily, that people aren't dying of their poverty," he later told a reporter. Sachs dubbed his experimental communities "Millennium Villages" in a nod to the Millennium Development Goals, the ambitious set of targets for the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger agreed on by world leaders to much fanfare at a United Nations summit in September 2000. His villages, Sachs argued, would show how those goals could be met.
The effort seemed perfectly suited for someone of Sachs's unique gifts. It required heavyweight stature in the policy world -- and star power, too. Sachs undoubtedly has both. Director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, he is also a special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and to several African governments, including those of Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda. He has, at various times, recruited investor George Soros, fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, and U2's Bono to assist him with the Millennium Villages, and his battle against poverty has been featured in Vanity Fair as well as The Diary of Angelina Jolie & Dr. Jeffrey Sachs in Africa, a 2005 documentary film based on the pair's visit to one of his villages in Kenya that aired on MTV.
These days, though, Sachs is increasingly on the defensive, assailed by a growing number of critics for what they say are fundamental methodological errors that have arguably rendered his Millennium Villages Project (MVP) -- now consisting of 14 village clusters scattered across Africa and covering half a million people -- worthless as a showcase for what can lift the poorest of the poor out of their misery. In May 2012, shortly after an editorial in Nature, the influential science journal, scolded Sachs and his colleagues for unreliable analysis, Sachs and his team were forced to admit they had committed a basic error in an academic paper intended to prove their project's effectiveness. "The project's approach has potential, but little can be said for sure yet about its true impact," Nature stated. Edward Miguel, an economist at the University of California/Berkeley, puts it this way: "No one takes the Millennium Villages seriously as a research project -- no one in development economics."
This isn't just an obscure academic debate about research methods. It's also an argument that cuts to the heart of how aid to the world's poorest people should work. At one end of the spectrum, polar opposite from Sachs, are skeptics such as his longtime intellectual foe, economist William Easterly, who tend to view aid as having a pernicious, debilitating effect, creating a culture of dependency. In between are economists, such as Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, who doubt that attacking poverty is as simple as Sachs would have it and instead advocate highly specific small-scale changes that can make for what they call a "quiet revolution" of sustainable progress. And real money is on the line: Although the several hundred million dollars expended on Millennium Villages so far is not an immense sum in the world of development, billions more would likely be spent if Sachs succeeded in getting others to adopt his approach. The World Bank estimates that 49 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's population of some 875 million lives in severe poverty on $1.25 or less per day. That's approximately 429 million people, more than 800 times the number covered by Sachs's project. With rival aid programs fiercely competing for support from government and private donors, funding for the villages is conceivably money unavailable for less flashy but possibly better-conceived projects.
Sachs vigorously contests harsh assessments of MVP. "We are developing many new tools that are innovative and being widely adopted," he wrote in an email to Foreign Policy. (He later canceled a scheduled telephone interview.) "Many governments, such as in Nigeria, Rwanda, and Senegal, are asking for our collaboration to take MVP lessons to regional and national scale." A senior Kenyan government official, Charity Ngilu, who as health minister worked closely with Sachs in getting MVP off the ground in her country, credits Sachs for focusing Kenya's attention on the crucial need to prevent diseases such as malaria. Sachs's involvement spurred the distribution, free to users, of some 10 million anti-mosquito bed nets and thereby made a "huge difference in a very short time" to combat the disease, she said in an interview arranged by Sachs's office.
But political and philanthropic successes and even such examples do not amount to proof or even, necessarily, a convincing case that mvp is succeeding as a demonstration of how to eliminate poverty. The question, rather, is a more rigorous one: Does MVP indeed show, by the evidence gathered so far, that it is, as Sachs claims, the path for ending poverty?
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