Democracy Lab

Aid Amnesia

Jeffrey Sachs has gone down the rabbit hole on the aid debate. He doesn't even remember what it was all about.

In the latest installment of this endless and tiresome debate over aid, Jeff Sachs struck back this week at my recent article entitled the "Aid Debate is Over." (Spoiler: In the piece I argue that he lost the argument.) What's remarkable, however, is that Sachs' recent retaliation in Foreign Policy takes very little from his previous writings about aid. These omissions seem to imply his own retreat from the original debate about Big Aid and Big Results.

My column was a review of Nina Munk's new book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, which concludes that Sachs' attempts to solve poverty have been an aid and development disappointment. My column also referred to the claim Sachs made in his 2005 book, The End of Poverty, and in other writings (such as the U.N. Millennium Project report), that a "big push" of aid could achieve the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, which include cutting the poverty rate in half by 2015. In his response, Sachs fails to mention Nina Munk, her book, the Millennium Development Goals, the big push, or even his own Millennium Villages Project.

Sachs' Millennium Villages are a set of model communities across Africa that have been targeted for intensive infusions of aid to improve health, agriculture, infrastructure, and education. Munk reports that Sachs explained to her (as he had already eloquently outlined in The End of Poverty) that the Millennium Villages were meant to show that "we have enough on the planet to make sure, easily, that people aren't dying of their poverty" (italics mine). He told her the villages would show that "there's absolutely nothing wrong with African agriculture that can't be quickly improved.... You can improve yields by a factor of two or three ... from one growing season to the next ... easy!" (italics mine again).

In his book, Sachs explained that the poorest people in the world are in a trap that they cannot escape on their own. In order to break this poverty trap, he suggests striking at its heart through "targeted investments backed by donor aid." He posits that the "benefits would be astounding" if aid-financed investments were to focus on agricultural inputs, basic health and education, electric power, transport, communication, drinking water, and sanitation. But, he further stresses, for aid to work, it needs to be fighting on every front: "[S]uccess in any single area, whether in health, or education, or farm productivity, depends on investments across the board." His U.N. report called such an aid program the "Big Push."

After such an aid program, Sachs' book predicts, "the tremendous dynamism of self-sustaining economic growth can take hold. Economic development works. It can be successful. It tends to build on itself." In the U.N. report, he further expressed confidence how aid can achieve the Millennium Development Goals: "the specific technologies for achieving the Goals are known. What is needed is to apply them at scale." The report identified 17 "Quick Wins" that would "see major results within three or fewer years." Again in his book, Sachs said poor farmers in Africa "could triple the food yields per hectare and quickly end chronic hunger." The cost of all this is apparently well within the capabilities of existing aid commitments of rich countries. So, if aid is appropriately applied, "success in ending the poverty trap will be much easier than it appears."

In an effort to provide proof for the all these ideas, Sachs implemented the Millennium Village Project, while at the same advocating the immediate adoption of nation-wide Big Aid programs in every poor country to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Munk contradicted Sachs' prediction of easy victories against poverty with her tale of struggle and woe in the Millennium Villages, which yielded some accomplishments but mostly disappointments. Apart from rooting out structural problems, the villages are plagued by more mundane matters. Water wells, for example, break down, get fixed, but stubbornly refuse to stay fixed. Even when agricultural yields did increase, villagers found themselves with a maize surplus for which they had neither a market nor storage capacity. Critics have piled on, arguing that Sachs is failing to properly evaluate his micro-interventions in the Millennium Villages. Without this, they cannot serve as effective evidence for his stance on aid.

Today, Sachs' critics do not even mention his original claim that aid will unleash the tremendous dynamism of self-sustaining growth. Does this mean that his original claims are so implausible that they're not worth mentioning or refuting?

I didn't anticipate that Sachs himself would now also join the loud silence on his original vision for Big Aid. (Sachs does mention faster growth in Africa and a fall of 17 percent in Africa's poverty rate, but somehow ignores that this falls grossly short of the Millennium Development goal -- which he embraced -- of 50 percent poverty rate reduction by 2015. The United Nations reports that Africa will not meet this goal.) Apparently there is nobody left, not even Sachs himself, to defend the case for aid as the engine of development in the poorest countries, where "success in ending the poverty trap" turned out to be "much easier than it appears." It is in this sense that the debate really is over.

If aid is not the engine of development, then what is it good for? If aid is not the engine of development, then what is the engine? Aid and development are now separate topics with separate debates. Aid can do many other good things even if it cannot drive development, and it is to this smaller aid debate that Sachs devotes his new column, making many sensible points on health aid.

As I said, I am tired of the endless back-and-forth between Jeff Sachs and me on aid (as are many others), which has been going on for more than eight years.

On one hand, Sachs has said that aid can end poverty, but in his FP piece he says that it isn't a driver of development. It sounds like Sachs and I both need to move on. For myself, I'd prefer participating in the bigger debates on development. Why does the development discussion show so much indifference to the most basic political and economic rights of the poor? Could the "benevolent dictators" such as the late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia -- who Jeff Sachs often praises (he even thanked Meles in the acknowledgements to The End of Poverty) -- be the problem and not the solution? Don't we see individual rights in our own societies as both desirable in themselves and how we escaped our own poverty? Why do we see things so differently for poor societies?

These questions are a lot more important than the now passé aid debate. I think I might even publish a whole book on them.

Brent Stirton/Getty Images

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