Sunday, September 08, 2013

Wherein reality and the theories of Jeffrey Sachs collide

It's not like it wasn't both predictable and predicted, but this book review of Nina Munk's The Idealist, gives a pretty good and broad overview of Jeffrey Sach's Millenium Village experiments (WSJ):

In the fall of 2004, I attended a meeting of the African Union, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to which the economist Jeffrey Sachs had been invited. In his speech before the assembled heads of state, Mr. Sachs laid out the argument he would make the following year in the book that made him famous, "The End of Poverty." "The diagnosis that Africa is poor because of poor leadership," he said, "is wrong." Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from geographical and ecological misfortune, he went on, and a crippling history of colonialism to boot. The rich nations of the West have the financial means and the moral obligation to help Africa—but they are too selfish to do so. The presidents for life gave Mr. Sachs a tremendous round of applause.

Afterward, Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia and a pro-growth autocrat, politely but firmly disagreed with his American guest. The main causes of persistent African poverty, Zenawi said, are in fact bad governance and instability. "We have not mobilized our resources properly," he said. African states were too dependent on "handouts from abroad." At times, he said, "we use the failure of the international community to justify our own actions."

This debate has divided experts and policy makers for the past two decades, and no one has made the case for foreign aid more cogently, or more vehemently, than Mr. Sachs, who for years played Sancho Panza to Bono's Don Quixote, together tilting at windmills at the White House, the G-8 summits, Davos and wherever else the high and mighty gathered. They lost, mostly: Development assistance has barely budged over the past decade. In 2005, wealthy nations pledged to give 0.7% of their GDP annually in aid; the figure is now 0.29% and falling. Yet, during the same period, a number of African countries have experienced the takeoff that Mr. Sachs insisted couldn't happen without big infusions of aid. Ethiopia's economy, for example, has grown by an average of 10.9% over the past nine years. In part for that reason, the balance of the debate has tipped to the Zenawi side—so decisively, in fact, that it has become difficult to make the case for aid at all. Mr. Sachs remains undeterred.

[...]Mr. Sachs deserves great credit for insisting, in the face of "donor fatigue" and self-serving cynicism, that outsiders can make a dent in global poverty and therefore must try to do so. But his diagnostic metaphor envisions aid as a transaction between a wise (Western) doctor and suffering victims. There is, in his worldview, no state and no politics, no culture or history. The actual wishes and preferences of the recipients have shrunk into irrelevance. That's not development, in the words of one of the many critics Ms. Munk cites—it's charity.

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