Published on Development Impact

OUN: Why Sachs is not the only one to blame for the MVP mess.

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One of these men is receiving the bulk of the criticism in the development blogosphere. But, what about the people bankrolling him?

By now, you have surely heard that the Millenium Villages Project has received another $72 million to conduct a second stage (see the discussion by Poverty Matters Blog here). Sachs and a colleague responded to the sustained pressure from the blogosphere, mainly from Michael Clemens of the CGD and Gabriel Demombynes of the World Bank with a piece so absurd that Development Impact, which had stayed silent on this issue for a long time, couldn't take it anymore. David McKenzie's thorough undressing of the response is here. Between blog posts by Blattman, Clemens/Demombynes, McKenzie, and the exhanges these blogs spurred on, I believe that there is REALLY nothing left to be said on (i) whether MVP is being evaluated properly (No); whether it should be evaluated (perhaps/probably); (iii) whether an evaluation would answer the really interesting questions (No).

So, why am I writing? Because while Jeff Sachs deserves most of the criticism he is receiving, I have not seen any discussion of why the UN and George Soros' Open Society Foundations agreed to dish out more money and stand on a podium with Sachs and give him full support. David finished his post with this paragraph yesterday: "Finally, one must also question what donors like the Open Society Foundation and the UN relied on in terms of evidence when deciding to fund this second phase of the MVP project. Either donors are happy to fund such a program based on factors other than empirical evidence, or arguments like those above are misleading decision-making."

Looking into this just a tab bit further, I came across an op-ed written by Ban Ki Moon and a blog post by George Soros a couple of weeks ago. They provide a tiny window into what just might be going on. The Secretary General of the UN talks about growing up poor during the Korean War, recalls his visit to the MVP village in Malawi, and tells of his excitement in seeing modern technologies helping poor people.

Soros, on the other hand, admits that the first $50 million he gave was a humanitarian gesture even if nothing came of MVP. However, now he is convinced. How? He also visited some MVP sites in Kenya and Malawi. If not, he is parroting anecdotes provided by someone else. He may have been a doubter in 2005, but now he is a convert:

Five years ago I believed that the Millennium Village Project deserved a shot. After closely monitoring its progress I now believe it should be scaled up. We have seen how the Millennium Villages can transform people’s lives, and with this next phase I believe it is well on its way to transforming entire countries and regions.

So, the impact evaluation nerds are losing the battle to "I've seen it with my own eyes: it is working" and "we've been monitoring progress: it's all good." This is why I am writing.

The tack that the critics have taken so far is that MVP needs to be evaluated. That has not worked (yet). I propose another tack: we should start talking to the people backing MVP at the UN; Michael Clemens should have his people start calling George Soros' people. We should tell them that they should not be giving away precious resources, which could be used to implement interventions with far better evidence of effectiveness, to people who have not even started to provide evidence of impact for their projects. In other words, Occupy United Nations or the Open Society Foundation.

If we don't succeed in at least getting a more coherent explanation from the donors than "I've seen it working," then we're not doing our jobs.

P.S. For full disclosure, Gabriel Demombynes is a friend and colleague from the World Bank. I met Michael Clemens on several occassions and consider him a colleague. I've never met Messrs. Moon, Sachs, or Soros.


Berk Özler

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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