Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Is the Debate Over?

Nina Munk has written a book titled The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Her book is critical of the idea, promoted by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, that poverty could be meliorated by simple technological fixes such as bed nets to prevent malaria-spreading mosquito bites, wells to provide clean water, hospitals to treat curable diseases, fertilizer to increase yields of food crops, etc.

William Easterly reviews Munk's book at Reason.com. He writes:
[Sachs believed that ending poverty] was just a matter of raising enough money to pay for the right combination of known technical solutions to poor people's problems. Sachs would provide a slam-dunk demonstration project by deploying these comprehensive tech fixes in a dozen or so "Millennium Villages" in Africa. Success would build upon success, and advocacy money would flow, until poverty was eliminated from the poorest continent.

The Idealist, Nina Munk's brilliant book on Sachs' anti-poverty efforts, chronicles how his dream fell far short of reality. Munk, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, follows Sachs around as he supervises the experiment. She also goes out on her own to the Millennium Villages, especially Dertu, in the ethnic Somali region of Kenya's arid north, and the more centrally located settlement of Ruhiira, Uganda. What she finds in these villages reveals much about the future of the aid and development debate.

Sachs' technical fixes frequently turned out to be anything but simple. The saga of Dertu's wells is illustrative. Ahmed Mohamed, the local man in charge of the effort, discovers that he needs to order a crucial part for a generator that powers the wells. The piece takes four months to arrive, and then nobody knows how to install it. Eventually a distant mechanic arrives at great expense. A couple of years later, Munk returns to find Mohamed struggling with the same issues: The wells have broken down again, the parts are lacking, and nobody knows how to fix the problem.

A little more than a year after that, the wells are up and running again, and the Millennium Villages blog celebrates Dertu as having "the most reliable water supply within the region." Yet by 2011 the wells have run completely dry due to a drought—a not-uncommon occurrence in the arid region.

Such examples multiply in Munk's book, showing that purely technological answers to poverty fall well short of Sachs' promises. It turns out that technology does not implement itself; it requires the assistance of real people subject to widely varying incentives and constraints in complex social and political systems.

Munk relates successes as well as failures. Sachs' project spent $1.2 million on health in Ruhiira, hiring two doctors and 13 midwives. Now many fewer mothers in Ruhiira are left to their own resources to give birth, and the prevalence of malaria has fallen dramatically. But too often, the failures seem to offset these small victories. In recent years, Munk has found herself chronicling a rising chorus of criticism. Three months before the release of Munk's book, Foreign Policy published a harsh critique of the project, offering negative verdicts from an impressive roster of experts in the development field.

New York University economist Jonathan Morduch told Foreign Policy that Sachs' "big-package approach is an anachronism relative to the ideas that development economists have gravitated toward.... Sachs ... hoped to show that properly delivered aid could bring about the end of poverty. His critics rarely mention this aspect of his work. The notion of such sweeping change is apparently so implausible to today's development economists that they do not consider it worth refuting. The big aid debate that Sachs initiated is already over.

We can now see that aid and development are two distinct topics that should each have their own separate debates....his idea that aid could rapidly bring the end of poverty was wrong. It's time to move on.
I'm certainly no expert on poverty or the aid/development debate, but I pose this question to those who are: Can we successfully and permanently reduce or eliminate poverty in places like Chad or Haiti without first changing the culture? And if not, how do we 1. change a culture, 2. justify doing so in an age when such attempts are condemned as chauvinistic and imperialistic, and 3. what do we change it to?

It seems to me that a culture cannot be altered without destroying the people who have lived it for centuries or millenia, but even if we could alter a failing culture I doubt there'd be a will to do so given the aversion to cultural imperialism and the embrace of cultural relativism that exists in much of American society.

And yet apart from fundamentally changing the culture I don't see how we can do anything more than bring temporary and minimal relief to the most blighted parts of the world. Aid is just economic aspirin and development requires building an entire infrastructure and network of interlocking institutions that evolve over long spans of time and which are undergirded by attitudes and ways of thinking that are alien to many stuck in poverty today. Can those kinds of changes happen? Can they happen without somehow changing the hearts and the mindset of a people?

I don't think so, which is why I believe that the most important work being done among the poor is that being done by missionaries who not only bring physical relief to those who suffer but also offer them the spiritual resources to gradually free themselves from lifestyles that chain them to their poverty. Without the liberation that those spiritual resources provide anything else we do is like trying to get an overloaded hot air balloon into the air. It just bumps along the ground until the fuel is exhausted and everything remains just as it was at the outset.