I didn’t realize what a prodigy economist Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty) was:
By the age of 13, he was taking college math. Later, he got near-perfect scores on his SATs and graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, where by 28 he was a tenured professor. Two years later, he was advising the Bolivian government on how to administer economic “shock therapy,” designed to break the spell of hyperinflation. This led to an even bigger triumph: masterminding Poland’s transition to a market economy in 1989, as communism collapsed in Eastern Europe.
Prodigy or not, Sachs has — surprise! — failed to eradicate poverty in Africa:
As [Millennium Villages] money poured in, exciting things started happening in this singularly unpromising place, where all the water came from a single borehole and 80 percent of the population was illiterate. Tin roofs, a sure sign of new wealth, began to proliferate; the health clinic was staffed and equipped. Thanks to Sachs’ tireless fund-raising and salesmanship, big multinational companies were soon pitching in to establish mobile-phone service and provide chemically treated anti-mosquito nets.
But the road to success was not nearly as smooth — or knowable — as Sachs had predicted. The original plan was for the people of Dertu to preserve their nomadic lifestyle. But the abundance of donated food and services drew people from far and wide and induced them to settle. What had originally been little more than a watering hole for camels became a sprawling shantytown, its streets clogged with garbage. The new livestock market failed. The one water pump broke down. People began to fight among themselves for distributed goods. There was drought, followed by flooding. There were epidemics. There was theft, malingering, misreporting, and more.
Similar problems befell other villages. As the villagers’ disillusionment with the project grew, so did Munk’s disillusionment with Sachs. Again and again she saw him move the goalposts or seek additional funding rather than admit that he was failing — that he and the 29 other academics who wrote the Millennium Villages Handbook had been unable to anticipate all the social and environmental complexities at work in even the smallest of villages. “To a large extent,” Munk writes, “the success of the Millennium Villages Project depended on Sachs’ idea of progress.”
Confronted with the inability of his villages to sustain themselves financially, he kept changing the plan, improvising frantically: One moment the answer was to attract tourists, the next it was to transform peasants — who for generations had struggled to grow just enough food to survive — into credit-worthy entrepreneurs harvesting cash crops for export.
The economists in the Millennium Villages headquarters in New York thought Dertu was thriving long after it had begun to fail, and they kept pushing Mohamed to follow the prescribed path up the “development ladder” to prosperity. When someone finally examined the village’s books, all manner of underperformance and discrepancies came to light, and he was “red. “I am feeling betrayed,” he told Munk. “I am feeling I was abandoned.”