Poverty and development

I listened to an interesting podcast the other day on Nina Munk’s book, The Idealist.  Here is a summary of the podcast.

Nina Munk, journalist and author of The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about her book. Munk spent six years following Jeffrey Sachs and the evolution of the Millennium Villages Project–an attempt to jumpstart a set of African villages in hopes of discovering a new template for development. Munk details the great optimism at the beginning of the project and the discouraging results after six years of high levels of aid. Sach’s story is one of the great lessons in unintended consequences and the complexity of the development process.

Here are a couple of highlights:

I think in some ways the appeal of the end of poverty and of his proposal for how to end extreme poverty was the fact that it was so simple and it was so straightforward. As you know, many development experts did dismiss it at the time and continue to dismiss his agenda and his approach as reductive and basically unworkable. But he put out there something that was terribly appealing to those of us certainly who maybe were a little naive or didn’t know as much as the experts on how one ends poverty. And it was basically that if one approaches the problem with enough determination, enough focus, and yes, enough money, the problem can be resolved. We can find an end to extreme poverty. And his idea was that pursuing a dozen or dozens of, you know, ‘science-based’, as he liked to call them, interventions simultaneously, we could really make a breakthrough. And so rather than just dropping a well in a village or bringing in a health clinic or a better school, we would do all these things in one go, and systematically, holistically lift people up onto what he would call the ‘ladder of development.’ If we just focused on it, if we just put a little more money into it and just worked a little harder than we had worked, this could all be pulled off.

Unfortunately, ending poverty with a top-down approach is never as easy at it sounds (Think America’s War on Poverty). Often times there are unintended consequences and Nina Munk does a good job of summing these up on Jeffrey Sach’s “social experiment.”

I think you raise the question of the real arrogance and potential dangers of intervention by well-intentioned but often ignorant or at least naive outsiders. And one of the things that sometimes made my heart stop was realizing that Jeffrey Sachs, for all of his enthusiasm and sometimes rah-rah-ism, would come powering, motoring into a village in his convoy of UN [United Nations] vehicles with bulletproof windows and air conditioning and give these enormously uplifting speeches and make all kinds of promises and set in motion an enormous machinery, so to speak, that then, when the Project began to fail or parts of it began to fail or the staff was no longer there or they stopped showing up–the devastation left behind was incredibly cruel. And I myself had the kinds of questions raised, rather the kind of questions you are raising. In the village of Dertu, which was the village on the Somali/Kenyan border where I spent a lot of time, really in one of the most desperate and violent parts of the world–utterly arid, dominated by nomadic camel herders. You know, after 5 years, 6 years of the Millennium Villages Project’s work there, they basically left it for naught. Officially the Project is still running though on a skeletal scale there. But the last time I was there, the village still had no running water or electricity or paved roads. There were no industries or long-term jobs or anything that as far as I could see was going to last when the Project officially came to an end. And what startled me was to see how quickly this village–it’s not really a village; it’s a sort of loose community of nomads that pass through thanks to the fact that there happens to be a well in this very arid landscape. But what had really been at least a physically very beautiful, wide-open pastoral landscape, lived in and occupied by Somali herders who set up their nomadic, dome-shaped huts and moved with the seasons–that this landscape had turned into something that really resembled a shanty town. That lured by the money that was poured into this area by the Millennium Villages Project, that a number of, a large number of pastoralists, of nomadic people, had given up the nomad and settled in on the hopes of living somewhat parasitically off of the money that was coming in from the Project. And they were now really living in a kind of squalor that I hadn’t seen on my first visit. Their huts were jammed together; they were patched with those horrible polyurethane bags that one sees all over Africa, covered in sort of burlap bags and sort of plastic tarps from the UN refugee service. There were streams of slop that were going down between these tightly packed huts. And the latrines had overflowed or were clogged. And no one was able to agree on whose job it was to maintain them. And there were ditches piled high with garbage. And it was just–it made my heart just sink. And I thought to myself: You know what, Jeffrey Sachs? You came to this village once. That’s not true. I think he came a second time in a helicopter the second time. He’s been to that village twice. And on both times he was received like a welcoming monarchy. All the people come out to greet him, and the local officials come out in their best Sunday suit. And everyone’s out there giving grand speeches on a microphone, and they sing songs and they dance for him and they thank him and they praise him and they pray for him. But you know, when you leave and you go back home to your townhouse on the upper west side of Manhattan and you return back to your comforts, you know, these people are left really with nothing. With nothing. And arguably they are left with something that is more dismal and worse than it was before he tried to impose his ideas of progress on them.

No matter the cause and how worthy it is, we must always be mindful of the second and third order effects. We must make sure people are never worse off after intervention than they were before.


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