The Jeffrey Sachs & William Easterly saga


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In the July issue of Vanity Fair Jeffrey Sachs calls for more aid money. This time it's $200 billion a year – about twice the current spending: "it's much cheaper than giving food aid, it's much cheaper than having wars, and it's much cheaper than having mass migration" he says. William Easterly, writing in Foreign Policy, is not short for words (see also the impressive illustrations by Mike Benny). He calls the World Bank the "high church of Development" and goes on to dispute Mr. Sachs' view:

Unfortunately, Development ideology has a dismal record of helping any country actually develop. The regions where the ideology has been most influential, Latin American and Africa, have done the worst.

Showing tangible results, Mr. Sachs points to the Millennium Villages Project – a poverty eradication experiment – in which each chosen participant receives $110 allocated each year for five years in the form of: fertilizer and high-yield seeds, clean water, rudimentary health care, basic education, mosquito bed nets, and a communication link to the outside world.

The first of Sachs's Millennium Villages was in Sauri, Kenya, where intervention began almost three years ago. Since then, production of maize in Sauri has more than tripled, while the incidence of malaria in the village has fallen by two-thirds. As well, lured perhaps by the free school lunches, more children than ever are attending the Bar Sauri Primary School. These are the sorts of results Sachs hopes to replicate all across sub-Saharan Africa, starting first in villages and countries that are relatively stable, receptive to change, and eager to work with him.

But Mr. Easterly remains skeptical:

[Sach's] own plan features hundreds of expert interventions to solve every last problem of the poor—from green manure, breast-feeding education, and bicycles to solar-energy systems, school uniforms for AIDS orphans, and windmills. These experts see poverty as a purely technological problem, to be solved by engineering and the natural sciences, ignoring messy social sciences such as economics, politics, and sociology.

More to come, for sure.

Pablo H.
June 27, 2007

Here is a contrasting, and critical, view of the millenium villages project in The Wilson Quarterly:…

Just in case.

Jeff Barnes
July 04, 2007

There is nothing new about the Millenium Villages project. In the 1970's and 80's many NGO's undertook similar approaches. Then it was called integrated rural development. Because of Sach's influence, the Millenium villages will get more investment per capita and more high-end technical assistance, but in the end, the issues will be the same. Such projects aren't sustainable. You can produce some tangible benefits in the short term, but you can't federal express development to all the villages in Africa. What Sachs is calling local ownership is window dressing. He is sidestepping health systems and agricultural extension systems and local markets to deliver his gifts to villagers who make minor decisions on how the gifts are used. He is not building systems that will last. This is relief, not development.

June 14, 2013

Jeff -
Thank you for this necessary insight. There is a great deal of literature on this topic as I have uncovered through my thesis work thus far. I would welcome any links to further sources on this topic if you have the time. Thanks!

Agnes Alando-Hoffer
July 24, 2007

Three years ago Mr Sachs and his group of experts realized that it was about time the rate of poverty and disease in Africa was considered a state of emergency. Ever since the first Scramble for and the Partition of Africa (the second one is at hand, massive off-shore deposits of oil and gas have been discovered in Eastern Africa), the “wind blowing from the West” has seen the need to involve local actors in this transformational process, ideological criticism notwithstanding. Change and growing pains are inevitable but suffering is optional.

As stated, Mr. Sachs can show tangible results with the Millennium Village Project in Bar Sauri, Kenya. Not only are the locals involved, but they have been highly committed to its success, for three whole years, already. It’s anything but a “short-term” process for the villagers and it’s about time they got as much credit from some sceptics as they get from Mr Sachs. Critics seem to forget or are perhaps unaware that indigenous knowledge already existed in Africa in the health, agricultural and environmental conservation domains among others. Sachs and his group of experts have introduced modern techniques to replace some of the lost and forgotten ones that were last used by our grandparents, who would also consider poverty today as a “purely technological problem!”

It starts at the grassroots all the way up to the top of the pyramid, simultaneously. Further, it is not solely up to Mr Sachs to “build the systems that will last, ” and neither is he “side-stepping the systems.” Just ask Mrs Charity Ngilu, the Kenyan Minister for Health. She consulted with him and as a result, he managed to convince the famous World Bank, IMF, major foreign-aid donors as well as Kenya's bureaucrats to increase her ministry’s budget up to 45%. This has enabled the distribution of 3.4 million insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria, the hiring of much-needed health-care workers, an increased access to anti-retroviral treatment, and a decrease in HIV/AIDS infection rates.

Perhaps African governments needed a nudge from politicking, and other stories (like Grand Corruption) towards “development” and other legends (the “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” notwithstanding).

After all is said and done, as Africa “reaps the costs and benefits of development or relief” whoever is not gathering is really scattering. Kenyans understand this full well.

Nathan Arnold
October 04, 2007

"What Sachs is calling local ownership is window dressing."

That is rubbish.

Jeff Barnes
October 05, 2007

Sachs has enormous energy and personal influence and has, to give him credit, been successful at mobilizing resources to support his work.

I am very aware that there is indigenous knowledge and systems in Africa. Indeed, this should be our starting point, rather than the MDG's and the latest development fad. Not only is it not solely Mr. Sach's responsibility to build the systems that will last, it is not his responsibility at all. It is up to the Africans, who are, in fact, up to the task if Development Inc stops disempowering them with big top-down plans being run from New York, Geneva and Washington. Time will tell whether Sachs' approach will last or not. Having sat under the trees to plan sustainable development projects 20 years ago with village elders and having lived through the development fads that come and go, I am skeptical. I would be happy to be proven wrong.

James Lauritzen
January 03, 2009

All of these issus are addressed in Jeffery Sach's book "Common Wealth," which is as compelling as it is informative.

We are naturally skeptical, but it is far more important to swallow it until we produce better specific and measurable results through our own actions. In the mean time get behind what has proven effective, and listen to the individuals responsible.

Kofi Bentil
May 26, 2009

So I live in Ghana and I have seen Aid work and not work, mostly it doesn't work!!, because of the AID PIPELINE, plain corruption and greed on the part of AID officials who take care of themselves first.

I believe Sachs and Easterly are ultimately on the same side, the issue is how do we help poor people especially in Africa. Sachs says pour money into Africa and it will help, send it to the poor people who need water and medicines etc, and they will be helped! true, but that is far from the reality!! because THE HELP SACHS RECOMMENDS AND GETS, GOES THROUGH GOVERNMENTS WHO ARE MOSTLY THE MAIN PROBLEM TO BEGIN WITH!! IT GOES THROUGH AID AGENCIES WHO FOR THE MOST PART (TOGETHER WITH THE GOVERNMENT AGENCIES) TAKE CARE OF THEMSELVES EXTREMELY WELL, BEFORE THEY GET HELP TO THE POOR, AND USUALLY VERY LITTLE GOES TO THE REAL TARGET.

Easterly says, yes, help, but the way to do it is not through the agencies we have used in the past 50 years who delivered almost nothing.

In Ghana, I have seen aid money used to buy 4x4s and driven through Accra, rent posh offices and pay fat salaries, only for the officials to write reports which don't mirror reality, because all the Aid supervisors want are reports!!! The ministry of health and GHS are reputed to have over 100 4x4s but there were no medicines in winneba hospital when a major accident happened nearby. I can say MOST AID IS WASTED BECAUSE OF THE AID PIPELINE, SACHS IS NOT DEALING WITH THAT, EASTERLY IS!!!

I don't hear Easterly say NO AID!!! he is saying SMART AID!!! for example give AID VOUCHERS to the poor and let them choose where they get help and use what he calls SEARCHERS, people who are by themselves doing a lot and should be helped.

I hope people realise that it is about how to help the poor and the status quo has not worked, Sachs may have good intentions but Easterly has the plan that works!!!

Damian Penston
March 09, 2014

William Easterly's view seems to be aligned with the theory which was put forth by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in Why Nations Fail ( In a nutshell, communities/countries become wealthy if they have inclusive political and economic institutions. If they have extractive political and economic institutions, their economies stagnate.
What makes these institutions either inclusive or extractive is the allocation of rights. If economic rights are concentrated in either the public or private sector, then conditions exist for monopolies which exclude the majority of people from sharing in whatever wealth is created. If the rights are allocated in a more balanced manner, it would look like this:
"To be inclusive, economic institutions must feature secure private property, an unbiased system of law, and a provision of public services that provides a level playing field in which people can exchange and contract; it also must permit the entry of new businesses and allow people to choose their careers."
-Why Nations Fail, chapter 3.
People like Jeffrey Sachs would be able to make a greater positive impact in a more inclusive environment. It seems to me that William Easterly doesn't think it's possible to influence (force?) institutions to become more inclusive, hence the argument.
However, according to the book, Why Nations Fail, if there are coalitions which demand greater inclusion, it's easier to achieve change. What if funding were directed into setting up community groups, industry groups, and any other kind of group which could become a part of an inclusion-seeking coalition?

Wiet Janssen
April 02, 2015

I have worked in 15 developing countries, during some eighteen years, most of these in Africa. In my opinion, practical training relevant to the circumstances is the only way to get people out of poverty. Teach farmers to become better farmers, train technicians repairing cars how to repair cars better, and so on. Anyone who knows his job can make a living. All the rest is wasted money.