The Insufficiency of good intentions; A review of the ‘Idealist, Jeffery Sachs and the Quest to end Poverty’

Written by Samuel Ndandala*

Some years ago, I stumbled upon a book whose title enticed my appetite; ‘The End of Poverty’. I was curious because I really hate poverty. The rift between the developing world and the developed world has always fascinated me. Why is Switzerland centuries ahead of Swaziland? Are Africans just intellectually inferior and prone to wars? Are their leaders genetically corrupt and Mandela a convenient mutation? Perhaps it is the tropical climate that renders Malaria invincible. Is it because many African countries are landlocked? (Somalia’s coastline is over 3,000 km, the longest on mainland Africa, second only to Madagascar, an island). Or is it because of historical reasons; centuries of slavery and European domination and brutality, colonialism and neo-colonialism?

In The End of Poverty, Jeffery Sachs outlines his blueprint for a complete eradication of poverty in our generation. He says that poor people need help, and the world has not given nearly enough in the last six decades. He brings forth the urgency, stating that 8 million people die every year because they are too poor to stay alive. I think he is right. At a granular level, people don’t die of malaria, people die of poverty. It is morally callous for the rest of the world to do nothing he says. He actually puts a figure; he says USD 120 per year for five years is enough to end poverty. If only the rich world cared! Reading the book infects you with empathy and a sense of possibility for our time. The broad message was that sub-saharan Africa has not been getting enough help. But is that all?

For five years, Nina Munk follows Jeffery Sachs as he tries to make his dream to end poverty a reality. To put his ideas to work, Professor Sachs sets up ‘Millenium Villages’. He secures USD 120 million (USD 50 million from George Soros) and starts a number of villages around sub-saharan Africa, one of them is Dertu, a nomadic ethnic Somali village in Kenya. At first, with the initial injection of funds, things begin to improve, schools are built, crop yields increase and bed nets are distributed. But that is not for long.

Cracks start to surface on Professor’s Sachs plan, factors never envisaged before begin to derail his plan. Cultural and social hurdles emerge. In one instance, people receive free mosquito nets but use them on goats (in nomadic societies, cattle can be more valuable than human life). In one village in Uganda, people refuse to grow maize, calling it prison food. In another place, the harvest has more than doubled, but there are no markets to sell the bananas to. Villagers begin to resent the professor’s plan. Flooding, droughts and famine attack. The plan that was intended to be a model for lifting people out of poverty has little to show.

Jeffery Sachs responds by extending the program for another five years and rallying the donors to give more. He travels around the country lecturing president and development practitioners on why his plan should not be questioned and how they needed to think bigger. Ultimately, the Millennium Villages Project does not produce the intended results. It becomes difficult for those running the project to accept the failure. Unsavory data is brushed under the rug while donors receive shiny reports claiming that everything is going according to plan. There are mismanagement issues on top of it and the initial push loses steam. A journalist that she is, Nina Munk animates some of the interviews, making you feel as if you were in the room when Professor Sachs was lecturing Yoweri Museveni.

While the book is a criticism of Jeffery Sachs, it is important that the man be separated from the failed ideas and given the credit that he certainly deserves. No single academician in recent times has done more to bring to light the plight of the poor than Jeffery Sachs. He is the man behind the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which have become a benchmark for global poverty reduction measurement (some question why we should have universal targets). He has rallied celebrities and politicians alike. He has stirred the collective conscience of the world. He is more than an economist. He is a passionate campaigner who really believes no human being should have the title ‘poor’ in the 21st century. The criticisms are about his methods, not the man

For me, The Idealist is a good book because it drives home four important lessons: 

1.  The poor are not stupid, they are just poor, don’t patronize them

Intellectual humility is important, even when you think you are omniscient. Poverty is complex. It has multiple factors with non-linear relationships. There are cultural impediments and social norms which economic models picked from university papers have no way of deciphering, let alone factoring in. No one person can claim to know how to end poverty, especially if that person lives on a different continent from the people they are trying to help.

The poor have values, priorities, tastes and preferences. They are intelligent and rational (try living on less than a dollar a day for a month and we’ll see how smart you are). It is wrong to treat them as children, which is what many development experts do. They create manuals and programs from the comforts of their European or American offices, send them to their local country office in Nairobi or Bamako, fly in a for a day or two, dance around with the locals for half an hour and expect them to follow their instructions to the letter. Can they at least have a say?

2. There is no panacea for poverty

How do you end poverty? Ask Dambisa Moyo and she will tell you that you need to cut off aid, quickly and decisively. Hernando de Soto will say ending poverty is simple, just give people property rights and let them have secure title deeds. Jeff Sachs will tell you that the poor stay poor because the rich are mean, they must give more. He wants at least 0.7% of what the rich nations make going to help the poor. Mohammed Yunus will tell you what the poor really need are micro-loans. Paul Collier will lecture you about peace keeping missions and building functioning democratic institutions. Esther Duflo will suggest randomized experiments to see what works.

The truth is, to use Sachs terminology; we need to be ‘clinical’ in our understanding of societal problems. Clinicians understand that two patients may have the same symptoms but different diseases. They may even have the same disease, but that does not mean they should have the same medicine. There are allergies to take into account, immunity levels, genetic factors and dietary constraints. The same medicine can heal one person and kill the other. The same principle works in economics, just because micro-loans worked in Bangladesh does not mean they will work in Burundi. Context is key, do not force solutions on people, they know their problems better.

3.   The best solutions are home-grown and bottom-up

‘Charity’, wrote Chinua Achebe, ‘Is the opium of the privileged’. It feels good to help someone in need. It makes us feel noble, that we care about the suffering of others. But are we helping the poor in a way that weans them off the need for our help? Are we aiding them in doing away with needing aid?

 Think of Africa’s most famous invention over the last decade, mobile money. M-Pesa, a Kenyan invention, is currently the most developed mobile payment system in the world. Local entrepreneurs seized the ubiquity of the mobile phone in Africa to solve the problem of financial inclusion, and they made money doing it. The results are astounding. That invention has cascaded into a whole range of products that are blurring sectorial boundaries between banking and telecommunication. A whole industry has emerged, creating employment and changing lives. That is how poverty ends, homegrown ideas spear-headed by people who understand their communities.

Sometimes poor people just need to be left alone. They are intelligent and creative. They know their problems better than anyone. They have ideas to solve their problems. They just need the rest of the world to stop feeling sorry for them. They need donor agencies, ignorant but well-intentioned development experts and sometimes their own governments to just get out of the way. They do not need to be saved, they need no messiah. It is true that that they may need a partner, but that partner should not patronize them. They need to be respected.

4.   The aid model and the industry around it is flawed, and needs accountability

If a company goes bankrupt, the CEO is in trouble. If a ministry fails to deliver, the minister resigns. What happens when an NGO does not meet its targets? The kind of accountability that goes into the private sector is needed in the aid industry. Who is the watchdog for Oxfam and One? And I am not merely referring to how money is spent but how results are audited. I want to see an NGO that sets a target like, ‘In five years, we want to make our existence irrelevant because we will have eradicated hunger, all of us will have to look for new jobs’. By the way, the aid industry is creating jobs; the only problem is that the jobs created are in the aid industry.

Perhaps the biggest problem of aid is that it disrupts economies. Distributing free mosquito nets is fine for Bono, but for the local net manufacturer it means the closing down of his business. It means unemployment for those who work in the factory. What happens in five years when the donor taps are turned off and the nets are worn out? These are questions that must be asked by those who are trying to end poverty.

* Samwel Ndandala is a Transfer Pricing and Value Chain Transformation Consultant at PwC Switzerland

Article written by

One Response

  1. shirumisha
    shirumisha at | | Reply

    Thanks Ndandala for transferring knowledge to us. I always ask myself why did Jesus the Messiah say, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mathew 26:11, Mark 14:7). This simple phrase leaves us with many questions as to whether poverty will end. Having in mind poverty can be defined from different angles and one being relative. Defining poverty from a relative basis means that the poor will always exist in our societies. The context of this phrase was to whether should we help the poor or should we leave them to find their solution. I think if we have the poor in our society we should always help them but is this the solution?
    The best solution for poverty is Education. The right type of education with relevant skills and knowledge is the best form of wealth that can’t be deprived or looted. A good example of this can be seen on the 12 years a Slave where Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free skilled man but even when things turned out bad, conditions changed and environment changed he still could survive in that slavery condition. Education is the best means that can be used to reduce the growing inequality. I believe that education is the best endowment point in a world that is driven by market forces.
    Furthermore, I agree with Sachs that we need to have clinical economics. This is great for our policy makers to have in mind when making decisions towards eradicating poverty.
    Thank you very much Ndandala for this great entry

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

Leave a Reply