THE MILLENNIUM VILLAGES PROJECT is now in the eighth year of what was conceived as a 10-year demonstration project, to be wrapped up in 2015. Even though detractors say it is too late to salvage research value from the experiments at the original villages, Sachs is now scrambling to respond to the criticisms he has long deflected or rejected.
The prompt for his apparent turnabout appears to be the Lancet debacle. The episode was discussed at a Millennium Promise board meeting at which the board told Sachs, "You shouldn't have errors" in such studies, according to Paperin of Open Society Foundations. A chastened Sachs called Birdsall. "He basically said, 'Yes, you had a point'" about the need for a system of independent evaluation, she told FP -- an argument she had made at the project's inception.
Asked to respond specifically to Birdsall's comments, Sachs fired off an email to FP, saying: "Given all that this project is doing, learning, and benefiting, the fact that you are focusing on this shows that you have little conception of what this project is about, why it is useful, and how it is contributing."
Sachs had also called Robert Black, who heads the international health department at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, to ask him to chair a new committee of outside experts to advise on the design of an independent evaluation of MVP. Black agreed, and the panel, known as the International Scientific Expert Advisory Group, met for the first time on Nov. 12 in New York, with Sachs in attendance. In an interview several days after the meeting, Black, who noted that he was just getting started on his task, readily conceded that "it's impossible" now to do "control trials," which he generally advocates as a valuable research method, on the original Millennium Villages. But "that doesn't completely invalidate a rigorous evaluation being done of what's been achieved," he said. "It's a matter of how to make the most of the information coming out of the villages."
Last August, meanwhile, MVP launched a new experiment in northern Ghana encompassing the village of Nabari and a cluster of nearly three dozen other neighboring villages, totaling about 30,000 people altogether. Unlike southern Ghana, whose economy has been lifted by oil extraction, the country's north remains mired in severe poverty. Britain's Department for International Development is providing funding of about $18 million over five years. A British-based development advisory firm is under contract to provide independent evaluation of the project, and there will be 68 comparison villages as a tool to assess progress. It seems that Sachs's initial objection to comparison villages, on ethical grounds, no longer stands.
Meanwhile, state-of-the-art thinking in the development field is in flux. There is no consensus on what works best to get rid of extreme poverty. Sachs still has his defenders. Klaus Leisinger, chairman of the European-based Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development and a member of the board of Millennium Promise, says that the Sachs approach of "integrated development" -- attacking poverty all at once on multiple fronts -- is easier to do now than in the past because of mobile communications technologies allowing for global coordination. But Sachs's many critics say that his "big-package approach is an anachronism relative to the ideas that development economists have gravitated toward," as New York University's Morduch told me. Humility is the watchword of the day, he said: "Today's typical projects are narrow, easier to evaluate, and pitched as part of a layering of independent interventions. A sanitation project here. A school intervention there. A legal reform." And Jeffrey Sachs doesn't do humility.
After several decades that saw the largest poverty reduction in history -- with the number of "extremely poor individuals" falling most spectacularly in China, from 683 million in 1990 to 156 million in 2010, according to the World Bank, and not because of foreign aid and well-intentioned foreigners but because of booming economic growth -- some analysts now argue that the best medicine for poverty is reforms to scale back the role of the state in the economy and to open sheltered markets to global investors. Sachs counters that poverty in rural Africa remains so extreme that without aid programs there can be no platform for market-based economic growth.
As for Sachs himself, the charitable view among economic development specialists is that he "stands for being ambitious," in Morduch's words, representing the hope of what aid can accomplish if not yet the reality of having done so, while the harshest perspective is that he is a traitor to his field. As Princeton's Deaton put it, "He stopped being an academic a long time ago and became a propagandist for aid."