For Nina Munk’s new book, “The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty,” she spent six years following the Millennium Villages Project. The brainchild of Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, MVP has over the past 10 years funneled more than $100 million into an ambitious antipoverty program in Africa. Munk’s book focuses closely on two villages — one in Kenya and the other in Uganda.
Extracts from an interview by her
“Jeffrey Sachs and his team, hoping to create a modern economy from scratch, introduce fertilizer and high-yield seeds, with the idea that people would grow and sell cash crops — tomatoes, soybeans, corn. And sure enough, when you introduce fertilizer, you get extraordinary results. In Ruhiira, in a single season average maize yields increased from 1.8 tons per hectare to 3.7 tons. There was an enormous bumper crop.
The problem was what to do with the crop. No one had really thought of the next stage. There were no storage facilities for the surplus, and there was no market for it. Southern Ugandans don’t like maize, but the village was so far away that any profits would be wiped out by transport cost. Then there were rats and vermin who took over the town. Eventually the farmers threw up their hands and dumped the maize on the market and prices collapsed.
Ruhiira is a perfect example of what goes wrong with well-intentioned ideas. Providing fertilizer and high-yield seeds is a magnificent idea. It looks flawless on paper. But soon you face a whack-a-mole problem. You fix one problem but a whole host of others suddenly pop up.
These big ideas imposed by outsiders can be breathtakingly arrogant. What, then, is the solution, if we care about the world's poor, as I hope most of us do.
If your goal is to help a limited number of people in a single village, you can do that. That's called charity. In the Millennium Villages Project many people's lives have been improved. There is less malnutrition, less malaria, more children in school in all of those villages. If you invest $5 or $10 million into an isolated African village, you are going to get results. Far too many nonprofits and NGOs boast about the sums of money that they're spending on big projects. That's no way to evaluate an antipoverty program.
Brand-new neonatal incubators sitting unused in the corner of a clinic because there was no electricity in the village. The skeletons of well-intentioned development projects litter the continent of Africa — bridges that lead nowhere, rusted tractors, broken water wells, schools that were never completed, maternity wards that are crumbling. One of the great hurdles of charity work in Africa is making sure that the work is maintained. In many places there simply aren't the tools or the knowledge to maintain projects built by outsiders. In Dertu, Kenya on the border of Somalia, there was a water well built by UNICEF in the 1990s. It's a life-saver for the area, one of few sources of water in an arid spread of land populated by nomadic camel herders. But every time the well pump breaks down, it can take months and months to fix it or for parts to arrive. And in the meantime, people just drop dead.
When the water well broke down, and the Millennium Villages Project decided to keep people alive by bringing in huge water tanks to supply water. But the supply of water simply wasn't enough to sustain the people and their camels. And before long fighting broke out, and a 16-year-old boy was stabbed to death because he was accused of cutting in line for water. The driver of the water tanker was beaten up by a mob. When you see desperate people fighting over limited resources you begin to understand how fragile human life is there.
One of the consequences of the Millennium Villages Project pouring a lot of money into this pastoral community is that more and more people gave up being camel herders and decided to settle instead in town. Thanks to the Millennium Villages Project, Dertu became an island of prosperity. There was a fully functioning clinic, a vastly expanded school, all kinds of new investments that encouraged nomads to become sedentary. I returned again and again to Dertu, and I saw this place that had been a sort of wide-open pastoral area begin to resemble an urban slum, with tightly packed housing, sewage running through the streets. It was, again, a horrible unintended consequence of good intentions. There is no economy to speak of in Dertu. The nomadic herdsman coming through trade or sell livestock. Some of them sell camel milk. Basically the only economic activity there has been gun-running and cattle raiding. This is the great failing of the Millennium Villages Project, and of so many other antipoverty efforts in developing parts of the world.
Jeffrey Sachs and his team came in and spent a great deal of money to lift people on what Sachs calls the “ladder of economic development.” Health care was improved, malaria went down, more children were in school. They had one success after another in basic indicators. But that doesn’t mean people had jobs. Nor was there is anything to suggest there could ever be industry in a place like this.
The lack of transparency is unfortunately the only way that many NGOs know how to operate. They are afraid that if they tell their donors about failures the flow of money will stop. In order to keep funding, nonprofits are forced to paper over and in some ways lie about some outright failures. Anyone who has ever worked in development knows perfectly well that maybe as much as half the money ends up being wasted.”