Russ Roberts

Nina Munk on Poverty, Development, and the Idealist

EconTalk Episode with Nina Munk
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Nina Munk, journalist and author of The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about her book. Munk spent six years following Jeffrey Sachs and the evolution of the Millennium Villages Project--an attempt to jumpstart a set of African villages in hopes of discovering a new template for development. Munk details the great optimism at the beginning of the project and the discouraging results after six years of high levels of aid. Sach's story is one of the great lessons in unintended consequences and the complexity of the development process.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: January 16, 2014.] Russ: Our topic today is your book, The Idealist. It's a rather extraordinary book I resisted reading because I knew how it turned out. But I'm very glad I read it. It had a powerful effect on me. And I want to start with how you came to write the book. Give us the backstory. Guest: Well, I started it in 2006. As you know, I am not an economist; I am not an expert in international development or aid. I'm a long-time journalist, and I spent many years writing not only for Vanity Fair but for Forbes and Fortune, the New York Times Magazine largely on finance and Wall Street, business. My last book was on the disastrous AOL-Time-Warner merger, and at some point after having written about billionaires as I often like to say over and over again for a long time, I thought to myself it was really time to change focus. And in 2006 I think like a lot of people it occurred to me that something was really out of whack. That was the year as you may recall that the Dow (Dow Jones Industrial Average) closed above 12,000 for the first time. It seemed to some people that if there wasn't actually a bubble on the horizon, something was off. And that it became, at least to me, very, very clear that this issue of income disparity, this issue of what we now refer to as the '1 percent' was looming and was important, and it mattered a great deal to me and I wanted to look into it more deeply. And I began--originally it was not a book. It was an assignment for Vanity Fair Magazine. I decided to write a profile of Jeffrey Sachs, and his book The End of Poverty had come out less than a year before I started working on it. It was a best-selling book, as you know. And I read it, and it had a tremendous impact on me. I didn't know much about poverty at the time. It was very compelling to me. I found it to be moving. And I decided to follow Jeffrey Sachs around for a number of months for Vanity Fair. And after about 5 or 6 months of reporting on him and on his campaign to end extreme poverty--I traveled with him to a number of African countries and sat in on meetings with him and heard him give countless speeches and read everything he had written. And after that profile came out in Vanity Fair in 2007, I guess you could say I was hooked. I thought, I don't just want to write one magazine piece on Jeffrey Sachs and Millennium Villages Project--his big anti-poverty effort. I really want to see how this turns out. Because the short-term picture is not all that interesting. I want to know if it works, and I want to know if it's sustainable, and I want to see where it goes. And I was fortunate enough that Doubleday, my publisher, agreed to let me write a book on it. And I wound up--with it originally being 5 or 6 months of reporting on Jeffrey Sachs wound up being 6 years of reporting; and it became The Idealist. Russ: Kind of a strange question: How much time do you think you spent in Jeffrey Sachs's presence over those 6 years? Because in the book there are a lot of first person accounts, and one of the questions I had as I was reading it was: Were you there? And of course the answer is: You were. There's a lot of dialogue--not first person, that's not the right way to say it. There's a lot of dialogue reproduced of meetings with Sachs with, say, the President of an African country, with detail. And so tell us the scope of how much time you spent with him, roughly, and how much travel you did back and forth to Africa. Guest: It was quite extraordinary. The intensity of the reporting--I'm immensely grateful, by the way, for actually having received a substantial enough advance for this book that I could do the kind of traveling and the kind of reporting that I did. I really traced Jeffrey Sachs, and to his credit he allowed me to follow him just about anywhere and sit in on many meetings. So, there were two components for the reporting for this book. On the one hand, following around Jeffrey Sachs, both in his meetings--one of my favorite passages in the book was when I was lucky enough to sit in on a meeting he had with a senior World Bank official--so being able to sit in on those kinds of meetings; being able to sit in on meetings that he had with presidents of certain African countries--that was an extraordinary opportunity. Both the President of Tanzania, the President of Uganda--I sat in on those meetings. I sat in on some very, very difficult, contentious, angry meetings between Jeffrey Sachs and donors, both international donors--sometimes they were smaller foundation donors, sometimes they were malaria experts, for examples on the ground. And so years and years. I was Jeffrey Sachs at one point in London; I was with Jeffrey Sachs in Stockholm; I was with Jeffrey Sachs in Ethiopia, in Mali. I really tried, whenever I could, to follow him around and be, what we call a fly on the wall, as much as I could. I also sat down with him--every few months I would sit down either in his townhouse here in Manhattan on the upper East side, in his office at Columbia U.; sometimes it would be on a long airline flight somewhere; sometimes in a VIP waiting room in some international airport in Africa. And I would interview him 1-on-1, and those were all recorded, and I had everything transcribed. So that was one very heavy part of my reporting. The other part of my reporting was really to try to get away from Jeffrey Sachs and his official trips to Africa, which were often very choreographed, and instead opt to journey on my own and to really immerse myself in the lives of people in the Millennium Villages. And I began my reporting early on by visiting a number of the Millennium Villages, and eventually focused in on just 2 that I really spend most of my time in the book reporting on--reporting on both the initial success in those villages and then some of the setbacks. And it essential to me that I spend time in those villages not accompanied by Jeffrey Sachs or members of his staff, but that I really be accepted there as much as an outsider can be accepted, as--you know, be welcomed and really tried to build the trust that is essential to do this kind of reporting. Where, eventually I stayed in people's huts; I shared meals with them; they very generously would welcome me with small gifts when I would arrive in the village. And quite charmingly said, we are no longer mzungu; you are a sister to us. And again, that was essential to the other side of the reporting here, which was to, I guess, parallel the big picture, the macro-reporting I suppose you could call it of the Jeff Sachs journeys with these very micro-reporting that can only be done on the ground. In the style, I would say, of an anthropologist, as much as I could. Russ: How many days do you think you spent in those two villages that you focused on? Guest: All in all? Weeks and weeks. I tried to really go back to rural Africa every 3-4 months, was what I tried to do. Sometimes I would go out in a circle and visit both of the villages that I focused on in one journey; sometimes I'd go back again and again. Sometimes I'd stay for 5 days; sometimes I'd stay for only 2 days. I would really, as long as I could manage to. As many of your listeners who have spent time in these villages know, it's very grueling, and I'm not a war correspondent. I don't consider myself to be a particularly brave person or a terribly resilient person. So it's very hard work. It's very hard work, obviously, just to be away from home. But it's hard work to come face to face with that degree of poverty and to be living in circumstances--you know, I found it terribly physically wearing and emotionally exhausting, as well. Russ: I found that, reading the book. And I didn't make the trip. I was doing it in the comfort of my Maryland suburb. The book is extremely powerful.
10:15Russ: Let's talk about the overall--let's go back to the macro. What was Sachs's plan with the Millennium Villages Project and how much money was involved? One of the things that comes through in the book is his relentless passion to solve these problems. And it's very admirable, in one dimension at least, the passion and the intensity of it. So, what was the vision to start with? Guest: You know, Jeffrey Sachs had wrote The End of Poverty, and his book The End of Poverty really outlined his prescription for how extreme poverty could be ended. And part of the reason that book has been such an enormous seller and continues to sell very well is because it offers really, as he himself often said, a "simple solution to ending extreme poverty". And one of Jeff Sachs's great attributes is he's able to take very complicated ideas and simplify them and put them into just a few data points. And I think in some ways the appeal of the end of poverty and of his proposal for how to end extreme poverty was the fact that it was so simple and it was so straightforward. As you know, many development experts did dismiss it at the time and continue to dismiss his agenda and his approach as reductive and basically unworkable. But he put out there something that was terribly appealing to those of us certainly who maybe were a little naive or didn't know as much as the experts on how one ends poverty. And it was basically that if one approaches the problem with enough determination, enough focus, and yes, enough money, the problem can be resolved. We can find an end to extreme poverty. And his idea was that pursuing a dozen or dozens of, you know, 'science-based', as he liked to call them, interventions simultaneously, we could really make a breakthrough. And so rather than just dropping a well in a village or bringing in a health clinic or a better school, we would do all these things in one go, and systematically, holistically lift people up onto what he would call the 'ladder of development.' If we just focused on it, if we just put a little more money into it and just worked a little harder than we had worked, this could all be pulled off. And his Millennium Villages Project came out of the ideas that underpin his book, The End of Poverty, and he effectively said, 'you know, I don't just want to write about this; I want to put these theories into practice. And if I can raise the equivalent of $120 per capita per year, I can put into place all of these ideas that I have and I can show the world that these theories can work. And once I've proven them in a handful of villages,' the idea presumably was going to be that he would convince the donors that this was the way to go and we would have Millennium Villages Millennium Villages Projects-- Russ: Scale it up. Guest: Similar. They would scale up all across the continent and ultimately that poverty would end. Russ: There is also this idea that it's not a lot of money--it's a lot of money to them, but it's not a lot of money to us, the richer part of the world. And once they got onto that ladder--I think again it's a very beautiful idea; it didn't turn out quite as he intended. But once they got on the ladder, it could be self-sustaining. They could start climbing on their own. They just needed to get a jumpstart. It's like when a car is stalled out. You give it a push and all of a sudden it ignites and you don't need the battery any more and it can do it by itself. Guest: Absolutely. Jeffrey Sachs, as many of your listeners will recall, was always one of the believers in the idea of a poverty trap, and that if you could just lift people out of this trap, if you could just implement these interventions that he had outlined in The End of Poverty--high-yield seeds and fertilizer, mosquito nets, better schools, improved health care, sanitation, wells, protected springs, and so on--and you could just give them this initial push, this lift onto this first rung, you could make a decisive difference. And they would sort of as you say, like getting a car jumpstarted, boom. They would get up and go and we would be home free. And he named this experiment the Millennium Villages Project, which of course was a reference to the United Nations' Millennium Declaration in 2000, in which among other efforts that they were going to try to halve poverty. And it was supposed to be a great, great project. And he managed to raise $120 million right off the go for what was initially supposed to be a 5-year project. And much of that money, $50 million of it, came from George Soros. Russ: Is that a lot of money? $120 million? How many people or how many villages was it supposed to-- Guest: I don't think it's a lot of money at all. But Jeffrey Sachs came up with that number very thoughtfully, I think. I think in the end he realized he was in many ways undercapitalized, so to speak. But part of the reason he came up with that figure is, thoughtfully he looked at foreign aid flows, or flows of foreign aid money, and even if we managed to sort of convince the rich countries to give 1% of their income into foreign aid, that this was--it was conceivable if he could convince the rich countries to increase their foreign aid spending by a little, not a whole lot more than they were spending now, that you could actually pull it off at that kind of per capita spending. So he was trying to come up to his credit with a number that was actually realistic. And I think in some ways, and as he himself conceded to me as the experiment unfolded, as the Project unfolded, there turned out to be a lot of financial constraints, and those numbers arguably were nowhere near enough. I mean, among other problems, it turns out I think that you can really accomplish what he had hoped to accomplish at $120 per person. Russ: And of course these are people who are desperately poor. They are earning--earning is not necessarily the right word. Their living standards in many of these places are under $1.50 or $2.00 a day. $2.00 a day is $700 a year; $120 per person on top of that is a healthy amount. For somebody earning a dollar a day, $120 is close to a 50% increase in wellbeing. But of course, they didn't just hand out money. The idea was to create infrastructure and technology and give people access to knowledge and technology that would ideally transform their lives.
17:40Russ: I'm tempted to let us slowly unspin the story the way it does in the book, which of course takes place in chronological time. But I think instead I'd like you to summarize what you think was the outcome of that 5 years. You've already hinted at it. How do you think the Project and Projects turned out? And then we'll talk about how that came to be. Guest: You know, I think the real question--people have often said to me, 'Well, do you consider the Millennium Villages Project to be a failure?' Well, no, I don't consider it to be a failure, because many people's lives, I believe, have been improved by the Project itself. I think we all know and can agree that if you invest $5 million or $10 million into a small African village, you will see positive results. Many, many people, certainly in sub-Saharan Africa and many other parts of the world are alive thanks to foreign aid, to humanitarian aid, and so on. The question though, is--I guess what I should say is, the bottom line is: That's called charity. And we know that it works, and it's good work, and I certainly admire it. But charity is not the same thing as economic development. And what Jeffrey Sachs promised and what Jeffrey Sachs aimed to do here was not simply to help a few thousand or even tens of thousands of people in isolated villages in Africa. What he aspired to do was to find a formula that could end decisively and sustainably extreme poverty around the world, and to come up with a kind of formula that could be scaled up, that could be used all over the world, but certainly all across sub-Saharan Africa. And people who work in the field of economic development wrestle with something much bigger than the impact of charity, and that is: How does economic development, real economic development, take root? And how can it be sustained, in desolate, absolutely desolate, desperate places where people are illiterate, where they don't live past the age of 55, where there are no roads, where there is no power, there is no water, there are few if any resources of any kind. There is no connection to the global economy or even their own domestic economies. Can people really be lifted out of poverty, as Jeff Sachs put it, or do they have to lift themselves? How do you connect these rural African villages to the global economy of the 21st century? And I think that that was something, certainly when I began my book, I didn't fully appreciate how different economic development and humanitarian aid or charity are. And in the Millennium Villages Project, in the villages, certainly in the villages I examined most closely but I think across the board in all of the villages, many people's lives have improved. That is undeniable. In village after village I saw children who suffered from less malnutrition, for example; fewer incidence of malaria, quite clearly. There was higher agricultural production in cases. There was improved hygiene in certain cases. And it was impressive work. But it also began to fall apart very quickly as the budgets ran low. In-fighting began. It was quite clear to me that this was neither sustainable and nor was it scalable. And I think in the end of the day that's really the terrible tragedy of this project. Russ: We've had William Easterly on this program a few times. He's been a vocal critic of Sachs. We've also had Sachs on the program, and we'll put up links of course--you can find those episodes in the Archives. But one of the things that I want to emphasize that makes the book so powerful is that it's one thing to say, Well, as you just summarized it, things didn't work so well: they got some short-run benefits--when you actually read about what happened and you read about the challenge of connecting--connecting human beings in cooperative ways, which is what markets do, what are very much missing in these settings. And they are missing for a whole bunch of reasons in these settings, and they are missing partly because of bad governance from above; they are missing for bad history; they are missing for a thousand reasons. But when you read about the actual details of, say, a surgery room that goes from being a room with, say, no water and no heat and nothing really that's surgical about it, to something that is surgical, but in the corner, when a child is born prematurely and there is a General Electric incubator that's been donated that's sitting wrapped in the corner, but there's not enough electricity to run it--and so the baby dies--it brings about--it's heartbreaking. It's really an incredible aspect of the book that makes it really a must-read for people who care about these issues, as really I hope most if not all of us do.
23:01Russ: So, let's go into some of the details of what went right and what went wrong. The original idea--and I have to say, running in the background in my thoughts as I read this book is, as long-time listeners know, my favorite quote from Hayek: 'The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.' And unfortunately this book is a great ongoing example of that. But the original idea was--these people, a lot of these folks in these poor countries, in these poor villages, they are farmers. So, if they just had more crop, if they just had more output, more yield, they'll get richer. And one way to do that is to teach them some modern farming techniques, fertilizer, etc. And then when they produce more, which would be great, they can sell it, they will leave subsistence. So, talk about what they tried to do and what actually happened. Guest: Well, there were so many well-intentioned ideas that underpin the Millennium Villages Project. Any of them are in fact well-proven ideas for helping to eradicate poverty, whether it's using malarial mosquito nets to help reduce transmission of malaria or, you know, trying to bring in wells, protected water sources to improve the quality of water. But as you note, one of the terrible sadnesses of spending time in sub-Saharan Africa is to discover again and again the remains of well-meaning development projects that littered the continent. You know, you have broken water pumps and half-finished health care clinics and incompatible machine parts and rusting tractors and roads that lead nowhere and pit latrines that have caved in and incubators that can't work because there isn't a functioning electric source. And so on and so forth. And it's this terrible sadness of a disconnect between outsiders and, you know, teams of these sort of enthusiastic volunteers or engineers or development workers from the West who never fully understand or appreciate the limitations of what's happening on the ground. And in the case of Jeffrey Sachs's initiative, specifically the Millennium Villages Project, one of the villages where I spent a great deal of time, Ruhiira, which is in the southwest Uganda, part of--one of the ideas there was the lift the people out of poverty by introducing fertilizers and high-yield seeds. It makes perfect, imminently good sense. All over Africa there are a number of initiatives right now to try to improve agricultural yields. In the spirit of what was done in the Green Revolution in India, for example. And in this particular village where I spent a lot of time, and the plots of land in people's shambas, their very small farms, are so small and so infertile the farmers can barely grow enough food to stay alive. And absolutely[?] no one uses chemical fertilizers. And no one uses high-yield seeds. And there are no tractors for irrigation. And really a hand-hoe is about as modern as things get. And so the Millennium Villages Project very sensibly on paper said, well, you know what? Bang. This is straight-forward, easy, what Jeffrey Sachs would refer to as 'quick wins'. We're going to go in there and we are going to give people fertilizer; and first we'll give it to them for free. And then we'll give it to them on a subsidized basis. And we'll give them high-yield seeds. And we'll show them better farming techniques. And bingo, in a single harvest, in a single season, you see these extraordinary results. And so in Ruhiira specifically, I recount the story of how they distributed 32 tons of high-yield seed, and 220 odd tons of fertilizer, to 7000 households. And the whole cost of the input push, about $300,000[?], was paid by the Project. And then they set up a few dozen demonstration farms and sent extension workers out across the hills to teach the farmers proper planting methods. And immediately, within a single season, by harvest time, the results were just extraordinary. The maize[?] yields had jumped from 1.3 tons per hectare to 3.7 tons. And there was this fantastic bumper crop. And I remember being there, and we were all just--it was a marvel. It really was a marvel. And the villagers suddenly were not only well fed but they also had excess maize that in theory you could store. Except there was a problem. There were, a. no storage facilities to keep the maize safe; and so as a result you had vermin, pests, disease, the rats start showing up and ate their way through I don't know how many bags of the maize. And the farmers were left with all of this maize that they couldn't sell, because of course we don't have any roads. And there isn't really that must demand for maize, because in that part of Uganda, Mutolke[?], the local cooking banana is what people really want. Russ: And they'd been pushed to grow maize, right? They were given the maize seed. That wasn't their normal crop. Guest: Exactly. Very little, there was very, very little corn grown in these parts of Uganda. The Ugandans in these parts referred to corn, actually, as 'prison food' because it's what they view as the food that is given to prisoners. Also school children. Those are the two groups that are forced to eat it from lack of anything else. But it's not in high demand, certainly. And what quickly became apparent was that even if you could find a buyer for this excess maize, that the cost of transport alone, given that there were no properly paved roads and this village was so isolated, the cost of transport alone would wipe out any profit. And so now began this kind of desperate moment in the village. And I was there at this time, where the villagers started really panicking, because they had this enormous bumper crop. So the first part of this experiment had been tremendously successful, and it had the desired outcome. But suddenly we were faced with this problem of: What the heck do we do with all this corn? And in the end, most of the farmers were forced to sell this maize for far less than the cost of the inputs. Because they wound up doing what farmers so often do with bumper crops when you are in a remote region: You dump the excess maize all at once. The market prices collapsed, of course. Any number of farmers just couldn't find buyers at all, and they just left the maize to rot. And the situation was so incredibly sad and so desperate, and some of the farmers began to protest. And at one point they lit a car on fire, and they smashed a window in the Millennium Project--it was just sort of one tragedy after another that had been set off by a seemingly obvious and thoughtful and intelligent solution to a problem. But because the entire chain or the entire process hadn't been thought through fully, we wound up with a terrible problem on our hands. Russ: One of the other Hayekian aspects of this is Hayek often emphasizes the particular circumstances of time and place. The ignorance in that literally, the ignorance of experts about what is really going on, on the ground, or what people actually care about comes through periodically in your writing, where cultural norms such as, well, maize is prison food, so maybe that wasn't even the best thing to start with. Forget the fact that they couldn't sell the surplus--they didn't have any roads, they didn't have storage facilities. The fact that they picked a crop that the people themselves would never have grown much of themselves--although there was one point where you say the--is it tons per hectare? Guest: Yes. Russ: Where people were growing it before in some amount, right? Guest: They'd been growing it in small amounts, absolutely. Russ: But it was not their main crop--their main crop was this banana. Guest: The banana, batoke[?], exactly.
31:42Russ: Those kind of cultural things come through now and then. So why didn't they then say, well, okay? What was the reaction of the Project itself? I understand the villagers were angry and frustrated. They didn't like rats hanging around. They didn't like the fact that they'd thought they were going to be rich and now they weren't. But didn't people say, well next year it will be different? What did they try to do? How did they respond? How did the Project and how did the farmers respond to this experience? Guest: I think that everything was--I've compared it before to that old game whack-a-mole. You are working in real time and it's complicated. There are a lot of different things happening all at once. And every time the fellows running the program would [?] down or think that they had solved one problem, something else would crop up again. And so Jeffrey Sachs had again another inspired idea, which was: Well, you know, the perfect solution to this excess maize in the village was to find a buyer, of course. And the natural buyer in this case was the World Food Program. And Jeffrey Sachs, thanks to his contacts was able to convince the World Food Program to come in and agree to buy the excess maize from Ruhiira, large amounts of the maize, and also the beans. They were growing beans as well. And part of the challenge of the Millennium Project was, the maize was one example, but they were also trying constantly to bring in other and different kinds of possible cash crops. So in Ruhiira they were trying to grow different spices that they thought there might be a market for. They were trying to introduce tomatoes, sweet potatoes. They were doing everything to try to come up with different kinds of crops for which they could build a market. But you know, you are trying to do this from the ground up. The World Food Program [WFP] deal is very instructive in itself, as well. So, Jeffrey Sachs, to his credit, gets out there and manages to convince the World Food Program to come into this God-forsaken village in the middle of nowhere and agree to buy all of the excess beans that this village of Ruhiira has done. And so the village is thrilled and they grow a whole lot of beans designed just for the World Food Program; they sign a contract with the World Food Program; and the deal is done and we think it's going to happen. But sure enough, because of the World Food Program--I'm laughing; of course, this is terrible black comedy--but the World Food Program now insists that there have to be all of these outside consultants who have to come in to make sure that the beans conform to the WFP standards. These very rigorous standards. And they do round after round of inspection, in this small village in the middle of nowhere. And three times, the food inspectors demand that the beans be fumigated. And this keeps costing the farmers more and more money. And the farmers have absolutely nothing. There are more and more quality controls. And then they insist that they have to be bagged in these special bags marked with the World Food Program. There's one delay and another delay and another delay, and in the meanwhile the farmers aren't being paid. And with each month--because the whole idea with this program was that the WFP was going to take the beans, buy the beans, pay the farmers immediately at harvest time, so they didn't have to sit around waiting. And as you know, at harvest time is when the prices are the lowest because it's when the greatest supply is out there. But now months and months go by. And meanwhile, with each passing month, the actual market price of the beans climbs higher and higher, to the point that [?] this contract that has been negotiated with the WFP is no longer advantageous. And now, again, all hell breaks loose. And the farmers start to rebel. And we've got this contract with the WFP; and even Jeffrey Sachs is at this point of trying to email or contact them and say we've got to find a way around this bureaucracy. And the long and the short of it is that after 3 or 4 years of trying to make this contract work with the WFP, finally they throw up their hands and that was the end of that. But it's just another example of how-- Russ: Threw up their hands--did they end up--did a transaction take place? Guest: A transaction--I think 2 of the 3 did, but in the end the WFP took much smaller amounts of what had been promised or what had been contracted, partly because by the time they were able to actually purchase, a lot of farmers had given up and sort of rebelled against the WFP so to speak and had already sold on the open market or sold through other channels. So some of it just didn't work. And finally in the end the fellow who ran the program on the village level, David Siriri, decided this was a ludicrous way to try to make this work. But I think part of the poignancy, you mentioned, too, when one reads this book--David Siriri, who I profile in the book, who was Jeffrey Sachs's representative in this village of Ruhiira in Uganda, really a magnificent man, deeply intelligent, terribly empathetic to the problems of his people in this village, a Ph.D. himself in agricultural, very thoughtful, who worked and really ran himself ragged--I've never seen anyone work quite like that to find solutions to these problems. And while the villagers were sort of uprising and saying you had promised this was going to work out, he was scrambling in his office to find other solutions and find other buyers. And meanwhile the prices of fertilizers are going up. It's sort of one thing after another thing after another thing. And I remember one of the terribly sad stories as well is he had come up with a very clever idea for them to sell spices, which is a very high margin kind of product, and they had a perfect environment for growing certain high-profit spices. But it quickly became apparent that the foreign buyers of these spices that they thought they'd lined up, they only wanted organic spices. They had been led to believe these were organic. Well, it turns out that all the fertilizer used for the maize and the beans had been seeping down the valley--not surprisingly--into the valley below where the spices were being grown. So in fact they weren't organic at all. And then the buyers wanted nothing to do with the spices. And so--I'm rambling here, because really, in real time, the whole experiment often felt like it was a rambling, runaway train. And just when you thought that you had solved or you began to see light at the end of the tunnel, the tunnel collapsed right in front of you and you were right back to where you had started.
38:27Russ: Which makes me think of the following, which you don't write about in the book; I want to ask you about. Let me confess my bias, and one of the reasons I was not going to read this book--again, I knew how sort of knew how it would turn out; I knew it didn't turn out so well. And my bias is that top down attempts to impose solutions on people don't tend to work very well. Things need to emerge organically; they need to grow out of the desires and skills of the people who are there. And so I'm on the side generally of William Easterly and others who are skeptical of these kind of--it doesn't matter whether they are small or massive--these things where outsiders come in as experts and imagine they can design a better life for people whose lives are involved. What I find interesting, as you talk about it, is--again, it gives me a feeling of deep sadness. And I am getting that same feeling now, that I had when I read the book, which is it's so overwhelmingly sad. And yet, when people like Jeffrey Sachs and others who tout solutions--those of us who oppose them are treated as callous, indifferent, heartless. We hold the moral low ground, and Jeffrey Sachs, the idealist--the title of your book--he holds the moral high ground. He's out there doing something. And yet, in many ways--and you concede that the program had some positive effects--but in many ways it's one of the cruelest things in the world to come to a group of people, set their hearts on fire saying I'm going to change your life; there's magic coming--it's the magic of expertise and wisdom and money--and your lives are going to be different. And to take that dream, which every human being has of a better life, especially for their children, and to smash it, and through your own hubris--it just, it's so depressing partly because those arguments tend to win. Those arguments of moral indignation and activism. And those of us who argue for a different approach are really relegated as cruel. I think there's something incredibly cruel about what the activists do in these cases. Guest: Oh, I think you make such an important point. Part of what Jeffrey Sachs does that I think is so destructive and so deeply unfair--not only because I've been the target of it, but I've seen him do it to so many people--is he uses a kind of emotional blackmail to get what he wants. And I saw him do it again and again, which is accuse those who counter his arguments or disagree with his arguments or bring up valid questions about his approaches, to accuse them of not caring about people. And the fact of the matter is that Jeffrey Sachs in oversimplifying problems and in amplifying his abilities, really not only sets himself up for failure but really in so many ways, not just disappointed, but cruelly disappointed and harmed the people he supposedly set out to help. And I, just speaking more personally, with this book, The Idealist, because this book reveals how hard it is to lift people out of poverty, I have had critics accuse me of opposing foreign aid. Well, I don't oppose foreign aid and I don't think that Jeffrey Sachs's critics, including Bill Easterly, oppose foreign aid. What I oppose, and what I think many of Jeffrey Sachs's critics oppose is a lack of accountability. And a lack of honesty about the repeated failures in the fields of foreign aid and development. It's just essential, if we hope to improve people's lives and we hope to really make a dent in extreme poverty, and we hope to make serious and sustained progress on this front, that we're honest with ourselves. We are obligated to ask tough questions about how effectively our aid money is being spent. There is not going to be more aid money out there, whatever Jeffrey Sachs might claim. And the question is not just about getting out there and telling people they need to give more money. The key is to really say what is it that works best. Let's make sure that there are rigorous evaluations and let's make sure that there is accountability and that we put our money into the kinds of efforts, humanitarian efforts, development efforts, that really work, that really make a difference. Russ: You pointed out that George Soros was one of the lead donors--well, the biggest single donor of the first tranche, the first round of funding, which was $120 million dollars. He gave--was it $50 or $70 million of the first amount? Guest: $50. Russ: Then Sachs went back to folks--I don't know after how long; you'll tell me--and he said, We need more money. And he went and raised an additional--I want to say $70 million from Soros, that had more strings attached this time. Talk about that. But what I really want to ask you is: Did you talk to George Soros? How did he feel about this, about his personal money going toward an effort that he was obviously very passionate about. I hate it when people say, 'Well, rich people don't care how much they spend--they have so much.' Well, one of the reasons they are rich is they spend their money carefully. It's not the only reason, but it's one reason. And rich people don't give away $120 million dollars, it doesn't matter how many billions you have--they don't do it casually. So I'd be curious what you know about Soros's reaction. Because he probably cared a lot about what happened; he didn't just write a check and walk away. Guest: I interviewed George Soros early on, either in 2006 or maybe it was early 2007 when I first began working or following Jeffrey Sachs. And at that point he had just invested or announced that he was giving $50 million to the Millennium Villages Project. As you say, he was definitely the lead investor in the project. I'm a fan of George Soros's; I like George Soros a lot. And I went to his office in midtown Manhattan, and I asked him all about it. And he's very good humored. And he said, fairly casually, he's given away enormous sums of money to all kinds of things, although this was for him very much a new area. And I said, Aren't you terribly concerned? What if something in the Millennium Villages Project doesn't work out? What if it's not the solution to global poverty? Isn't this investment of yours a huge risk? And he sort of shrugged and said, Well, you know, the worst case scenario is it's just a humanitarian investment, in which case it's a good investment on its own. But you know, imagine if it actually succeeds. In that case we're going to wind up with a reward that will be way out of proportion to the investment that I made. Russ: High risk, high return. Guest: Exactly. It was sort of a charming approach to it. Now, unfortunately, I did not get to interview George Soros more recently, since the results or some of the data has come out from the Millennium Villages Project and it's been a little bit clear that unfortunately it hasn't succeeded in the way that one might have hoped originally. I think it's pretty clear based on the money that he has continued to put toward the Millennium Villages Project--but now, the money that he pledged for the second phase is very different from the money that he put up in the first phase. In the first phase it was really to help pay for the project, to get it up and running, to pay for all of the interventions and so on. The money that he did provide in Phase 2, which was years 5-10, came with a lot of strings. The main issue was the $20 million was not at all guaranteed. It was specifically made available for loans that were contingent on villages coming up with what he termed investment-worthy business projects that met with Soros's approval. So in other words this was more a kind of venture capital funding in this case. So I'm guessing--and again, I haven't interviewed him first-hand, but just based on reading the press release and looking at the money that he's given for the second phase, he very much shifted the investments away from paying for those original interventions and rather is saying, you know what, the part that I believe in or that I want to try to support is specifically business interventions. Let's see if we can provide some sort of entrepreneurial startup money-- Russ: Micro-finance, capital, to get people jump started. Guest: Exactly.
47:51Russ: So let me push back on you a little bit and represent Sachs here. You went to two villages. They didn't turn out so well. You chronicled some really depressing anecdotes. But as you concede, a lot of people's lives were improved. Malaria is down in those villages, I think. A lot of villages, because of bed nets that were donated through the project. How do you know you are capturing the real picture here, through your personal, on-the-ground--first of all, how many villages are there? And why do you think these two are representative? What do we know about the overall impact of the project? Guest: That's a good question. Obviously, by definition, when you are reporting you can only really report on what you see. So there could be some extraordinary successes happening in some of the villages that I didn't examine as closely. But I will tell you that while I did not spend as much time in the other villages as I did in the two that I focused on, there is a good deal of data that has come out of the other villages. I certainly visited I think 4 of the other villages, though not repeatedly. Many other researchers have gone in and visited the other villages. I know any number of my good sources or people at all levels of the Millennium Villages Project, at the higher levels, out of New York, who ran the organization from the highest levels, who have had access to all the information. And although some of the villages certainly have done better than others, and some of them have perhaps done better than the two villages I focused on, there is no indication that the villages I focused on were particularly marginal. I mean, certainly my village--'my'. I like the way I call it 'my' village. The village I spent a lot of time on, on the Somali-Kenya border was one of the most difficult villages and arguably one of the worst villages in Sachs's portfolio. The other village in Uganda has been held up by the Millennium Villages Project again and again as one of their success stories. So I actually would argue that the two villages I focus on are fairly representative of a very good village and a not-so-good village. I'm by far not alone in having been a real critic of the data that has come out of the villages. I'm not an academic as you know, so a lot of my reporting is much more anecdotal and much more on-the-ground and from the people themselves. But there have been any number of reports that have come out showing that the data that's come out of the villages is uneven, that it's inconclusive. There was a major report in Lancet that had to be retracted because the data turned out to be flawed. There are a lot of issues. Now Jeffrey Sachs is responding that although the data currently is not available to show that the Project has worked, he has repeatedly said in recent interviews that by 2016 there will be data available for us that will demonstrate the effectiveness of this project. So, I have no way of telling you what will happen in 2016. But certainly at this point, there is simply not enough data to demonstrate that this Project is a success. There is data that shows clearly that in certain villages the prevalence of malaria has dropped; that more women are giving birth with the help of trained birth attendants; that child mortality is down. And so on. But at the same time, as academics and other researchers have pointed out, those improvements have been happening all across sub-Saharan Africa, not just in the Millennium Villages. Reports from UNICEF, the World Bank, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) have confirmed that, you know, the lives of the poorest Africans really have been improving. Slowly, but they clearly have been improving in the last 10, 20 years. We've seen deaths from malaria fall sharply all across Africa. We've seen infant mortality rates drop sharply. We've seen more and more African children attending primary schools, and so on. I think one of the most difficult, most problematic parts of the Millennium Villages Project is Jeff Sachs's inability to state decisively or to show real evidence that demonstrates that his approach has any advantage over approaches that have been used in more general ways across the Continent. Russ: Well, those are tough challenges, right? We understand how hard it is to tease out the impact of one program, one intervention in a multi-causal world. And you point out just one example of that, which is when the Continent as a whole is doing well, you don't know how much is attributable to the Project per se. Guest: Yes.
52:50Russ: Let's go on to the micro level. Let's go anecdotal. Let's take the two villages you spent the time in the most. What would have been a success? In your mind, when you started this project, what would you have expected to see if things had gone--forget measuring it for a moment. Because it's hard to measure. A number of guests on this program have talked about how pitiful government statistics are in poor parts of the world. So it's a huge problem just getting honest data; forget the fact that it's imperfect and what it actually describes. But in terms of intangible stuff, stuff you can't measure: What would you have said 5 years ago is success, would have made this project look successful? And why have you concluded, that it's not? Again, no data. Just: What did you see on the ground that discouraged you? Guest: You know, I think from my perspective, again, as an absolute non-expert here--I'm not trying to pretend I'm an economist by a long shot. But I think from my perspective what became clear as the years went by and as I really came as much as I could to try to understand the lives of individual people in these villages, what became clear to me is that what counts when you are talking about economic development is to really be able to see the possibility of sustained earnings. The very earliest step is that you improve people's health and you stop them from dying of all kinds of horrible diseases, and you begin to provide them with a health clinic and you provide them with the possibility of education, and you provide them with sanitation, with clean water, with latrines. And that's kind of absolute baseline, lowest hanging fruit. And what Jeffrey Sachs would often refer to as the quick wins. You provide free food in the school and suddenly a whole lot more kids go to a school. That's a lovely and easy kind of success on a basic level. But what happens after 3 or 4 or 5 years, when the people who have built that school are no longer in that village? What happens when Jeffrey Sachs and his team pull out and the money has run out? How do you make sure that this kind of development that has happened and this sort of beginning of some kind of a promise is sustained, that it really has taken root? And I think what we can all agree on is that what's essential is that there is some possibility of employment, of livelihood, sustained livelihood for the people who are living there. How can they earn a living? How can they keep themselves alive? Beyond the basic charity that was given to them right from the beginning. And in both of the villages that I spent the time in, there was really nothing at all, by the time I finished my reporting in 2012, to demonstrate that there was anything sustained here. That there was anything that allowed the people in these villages to continue to live here and support their families and that a generation from now would be there. There is no industry. There is no reason for anyone to develop markets in these places. There are no resources. There's no water. Agriculture is excruciatingly difficult. The soil is lacking any nourishment. There are terrible problems of violence. What happens in the long term? And you know, there are some economists out there, and I'm thinking of Lant Pritchett for example, who have proposed that maybe on some level the solution is that people just aren't meant to live in certain parts of the world. You know, maybe there are not places that can ever be developed. Russ: I was thinking of the old joke that what East Texas needs to escape poverty is luggage. In the old days. They need to get out. It's not a good place. I was just going to ask you that, so I'm glad you brought it up. But what it raises the question of is: Why do they stay? They don't need the luggage. That's just a flippant joke that's moderately amusing. But there's something--I don't want to be romantic about poverty because I think there's nothing romantic about it. There's nothing romantic about a child dying at all. Nothing. And I think a terrible thing the West does sometimes is romanticize poverty. I remember a friend of mine going on a trip to Kenya talking about how charming it was that the kids would beg for a pencil. And there's nothing charming about it. It's incredibly sad that human beings live in certain situations. But it does raise the question that for some of these folks, they have an ancient way of life. It's what they are used to. They like it, some of it. Maybe[?] the things you talk about in the book is that some of the habits and cultural norms that they have, they are woven deeply into their lives and to suggest they can now do something radically different is not just a fantasy. It's not what they want. And I don't want to say they want to be poor. Because they don't want to be poor. But there must be aspects of living there that are precious to them. Guest: Well, I think you raise the question of the real arrogance and potential dangers of intervention by well-intentioned but often ignorant or at least naive outsiders. And one of the things that sometimes made my heart stop was realizing that Jeffrey Sachs, for all of his enthusiasm and sometimes rah-rah-ism, would come powering, motoring into a village in his convoy of UN [United Nations] vehicles with bulletproof windows and air conditioning and give these enormously uplifting speeches and make all kinds of promises and set in motion an enormous machinery, so to speak, that then, when the Project began to fail or parts of it began to fail or the staff was no longer there or they stopped showing up--the devastation left behind was incredibly cruel. And I myself had the kinds of questions raised, rather the kind of questions you are raising. In the village of Dertu, which was the village on the Somali/Kenyan border where I spent a lot of time, really in one of the most desperate and violent parts of the world--utterly arid, dominated by nomadic camel herders. You know, after 5 years, 6 years of the Millennium Villages Project's work there, they basically left it for naught. Officially the Project is still running though on a skeletal scale there. But the last time I was there, the village still had no running water or electricity or paved roads. There were no industries or long-term jobs or anything that as far as I could see was going to last when the Project officially came to an end. And what startled me was to see how quickly this village--it's not really a village; it's a sort of loose community of nomads that pass through thanks to the fact that there happens to be a well in this very arid landscape. But what had really been at least a physically very beautiful, wide-open pastoral landscape, lived in and occupied by Somali herders who set up their nomadic, dome-shaped huts and moved with the seasons--that this landscape had turned into something that really resembled a shanty town. That lured by the money that was poured into this area by the Millennium Villages Project, that a number of, a large number of pastoralists, of nomadic people, had given up the nomad and settled in on the hopes of living somewhat parasitically off of the money that was coming in from the Project. And they were now really living in a kind of squalor that I hadn't seen on my first visit. Their huts were jammed together; they were patched with those horrible polyurethane bags that one sees all over Africa, covered in sort of burlap bags and sort of plastic tarps from the UN refugee service. There were streams of slop that were going down between these tightly packed huts. And the latrines had overflowed or were clogged. And no one was able to agree on whose job it was to maintain them. And there were ditches piled high with garbage. And it was just--it made my heart just sink. And I thought to myself: You know what, Jeffrey Sachs? You came to this village once. That's not true. I think he came a second time in a helicopter the second time. He's been to that village twice. And on both times he was received like a welcoming monarchy. All the people come out to greet him, and the local officials come out in their best Sunday suit. And everyone's out there giving grand speeches on a microphone, and they sing songs and they dance for him and they thank him and they praise him and they pray for him. But you know, when you leave and you go back home to your townhouse on the upper west side of Manhattan and you return back to your comforts, you know, these people are left really with nothing. With nothing. And arguably they are left with something that is more dismal and worse than it was before he tried to impose his ideas of progress on them.

COMMENTS (54 to date)
JacobN writes:

I'm only halfway through the podcast, but my natural reaction to hearing they had excess maize was that they should distill it into whiskey. Easier to transport and far more valuable.

DougT writes:

Another favorite! The closing comments on the before/after picture of the Village of Dertu were especially devastating. It's not just touristic pictures that have been ruined. You now have lives that are being shaped by pathological dependency

It would be interesting to hear Sachs respond. Yes, the plural of anecdote is not data, but it would seem that if Hayek is right, that unexpected and unforeseen feedback loops will lay waste to the most intricate plans, then the data must verify what the stories indicate: it is the height of arrogance to say, "We will manage it for you."

My best friend from college spent five years farming demonstration plots in rural Philippines with the Peace Corps 30 years ago. He recently went back for a visit--he has stayed in touch with the village where he and his wife were posted, and he now teaches Agro-Forestry at the University of Hawaii. His work made a real difference in people's lives, but it was not a "quick win." It took years of his and his wife's lives, it was hard, it was frustrating, and it was--in the end--incredibly rewarding. But he had no delusions of grandeur nor expectations that he would "end poverty." He just wanted to share his good fortune with some less fortunate folk.

Development is slow, costly, hard work. It can make a difference, but it needs to have modest expectations and it needs to be accountable. The lack of accountability and overly-ambitious agendas seem (to me) to be good explanations as to why good-intentions so often fail.

I think it is telling that Soros is attaching a lot of conditions to his money now.

Again, great show!

mtipton writes:

Grandiose thinking: Since early age we are raised to think that we can change the world, at the same time our “Global Awareness” expands
and care and are aware of problems happening on the other side of the world. So we come to believe “our little selves” have the knowledge
to solve and help in significant ways people and places we know nothing about.

Knowledge of time and place:
Arrogance is not where the high moral ground rests. And I really cannot think of a better word that describes the interventionist attitude.
There’s a fundamental resistance with accepting that the best we can hope for is charity/humanitarian aid, or other modest interventions
like microloans, because as incredibly important as charity/humanitarian aid can be for the individuals receiving it, it doesn’t satisfy our craving
for feeling like we are solving large and complex problems. It doesn’t attract as much money as when you believe your money is going to end
poverty, or eradicate some kind of illness or some lofty goal. It doesn’t suffice to know that we are helping a particular person with a particular
need, because a lot of us think, well I might help this person but in the end I haven’t solved the root of the problem, is like the effects of my
help dissolve in time and become completely insignificant. They’ll still be poor. I haven’t really made the world a better place.

Other people’s problems:
While I don’t subscribe to the idea that we can solve complex global problems with experts and money, to some extent
I do fall into thinking that since charity/humanitarian aid won’t “SOLVE” the problems my incentive to contribute
is diminished. Maybe it is a rational economic calculation based on my particular circumstances or the wrong conclusion.
That’s not to say I don’t plan on or have given to charity before, but that the amount and frequency with which I give is probably diminished
by me feeling way too insignificant to impact or move the pendulum of happiness in the lives of strangers especially when on the other side
of the world. I’ve grown more concerned with “making the world a better place” by focusing on my person, my family and the people
that are around me whom I know a little better.

I still have the interventionist impulse, I am a very sensitive person and are affected when I see injustice, or any kind of suffering. When I start
to device tentative plans of action, starting from the question: What can I do? I soon realize that the people within the situations
or closer to the problem are much better able to address it and have the highest incentives to try and solve it. And that I am probably
not well suited to solve some of the distant and complicated problems of the world. It’s a humble view of the capacity of the individual
in the larger/global context. In this view the entrepreneurial imperative is most important in creation of wealth and were our efforts
can be at their most productive and where we should probably focus. Instead of going to the other side of the world and trying to
increase profits for other peoples businesses while spending other people’s money in areas where I’VE NEVER MADE A
PROFIT MYSELF (Jeff Sachs comes to mind), we should focus on starting businesses ourselves with our own skin in the game, in industries we have
a competitive advantage in.

Cowboy Prof writes:

Great podcast from a credible source -- somebody with a priori beliefs that ran one way, but came out the other side of the experience with a different take.

I like JacobN's suggestion about making whiskey, and had the villagers been left to their own devices they may have. However, there is the time horizon thing with whiskey -- it has to be aged -- and (as JacobN might find out in the second half) there is probably some World Whiskey Fund that has certain distilling and bottling standards.

In all honesty, I was horrified by the World Food Fund's reaction to all of this. I will use this podcast as a curative example to all the folks who insist that promoting organic and other food quality standards is the solution to better nutrition in the developing world.

I would also pair this podcast with Taleb's "skin in the game" episode because at the end of the day, the economists get to go home to their comfortable surroundings and ponder yet another solution for another day.

Richard Fulmer writes:

Russ,
I wonder if this could be an area where one of your "hearts and minds" novels could help people not only understand the damage done by these types of grandiose projects but feel it as well. A "tale of two villages" could contrast the sorts of hard-won modest gains made by Doug T's friends with the soul crushing failures that people with loftier goals impose on desperately poor people. Such a story might help shift the "high moral ground" a bit. At the same time, showing that success is possible if we are more humble about the goals could offset the hopelessnes that mtipton feels.

Russell writes:

Interesting podcast. Listening to the results that Ms. Munk talked about made me think that it was very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that solving one problem would then lead rather inevitably to the solution of most all other problems.

Grow lots of maize. Where to store? Where to market? How to transport? There was no chain that led to more money in the farmer's hands.

Sell beans (was it beans?). What requirements did the buyer impose on the sellers? Did anyone, particularly the educated westerners of the project, think about what was involved or did they just assume that their job was done when the contract was signed?

The question may be what does Mr. Sachs think went wrong with the project, generally? I suspect he thinks that it just didn't have enough money and authority to spend it. If so, he seems likely to repeat most of the failures until he changes his mind.

cswaters writes:

"The question may be what does Mr. Sachs think went wrong with the project, generally?"

Not much. He views the project as successful (as do most of the 'feel-good' crowd). His opinions on aid and development haven't changed at all based on the results (the same results that turned Nina Munk into a skeptic).

Here's what Sach's wrote last week (you can find the post on his site).

"As experience demonstrates, it is possible to use our reason, management know-how, technology, and learning by doing to design highly effective aid programs that save lives and promote development. This should be done in global collaboration with national and local communities, taking local circumstances into account. The evidence bears out this approach."

I still have a hard time understanding how two groups of people can look objectively look at the same data points and come to opposite conclusions. I guess that's why I'm not an economist.

Michael Byrnes writes:

This podcast was a pessimistic reality-check.

I wonder what if anything useful might be learned from this outcome.

Would a Paul Romer charter city type of approach work better, or would it fail for all the same reasons?

Regarding whiskey... I would think it is much, much easier to turn excess corn into an alcoholic beverage than it would be to turn excess corn into a palatable alcoholic beverage that people would want to buy.

Ed Hanson writes:

I really did not want to read this book, my quota for depression from reading of bad outcomes has already been exceeded this year by the English edition book Tombstone by Yang Jisheng, another tragedy of top down planning albeit a hugely greater scale and consequences.

But so many questions I still have. For example, the interview speaks of the small plots of farming land. Did the farmers have title to this land a la Hernando de Soto? The interview speaks of additional population in the area of the villages living in "shanty" towns hoping for a share of the new western largest. Would private property rights kept this influx to those who could contribute to wealth building? Would a better result be obtained if the funds for the program began by securing private property rights?

I find mosquito nets which reduce the incidence of disease marvelous. But I can imagine proper use of DDT as a less costly, more long term effective effort. But the same western expertise which brings ill conceived command projects to the area, also commands the terms of disease control.

So many more questions.

Ed

Steve Sedio writes:

This reminds me of a TED Talk where Jacqueline Novogratza volunteered in Africa, and saw a sweater she had donated on a child. Donations killed the local retail market - increasing poverty and dependency.

http://www.ted.com/talks/jacqueline_novogratz_invests_in_ending_poverty.html

It does make me wonder how many of those running these grand programs really believe their own PR, or if they are in it for the glory, or the graft. Bill Gates seems to be funding programs with results - an interview with him, or a representative would be interesting.

That they continue, like bad government programs, comes from the lack of accountability. As Nina describes the "village" at the end, it can't be said "it would have been worse, but for my aid".

The combination of tugging at our heart strings, and blasting those that donate as uncaring, is tried and true - whether it be on poverty, or climate change. I see that constant drum beat has pushed the US further into socialism (funded by borrowing, instead of the checks and balances of tax hikes) .

Somehow, pointing out the failures doesn't carry the same weight with the public, as good intentions, even with multiple examples of horrible outcomes.

Jarret writes:

Does anyone know of the paper in which Lant Pritchett argues certain parts of the world aren't meant to be lived in? It seems like a pretty big statement and I'd like to see how he argues this point. Thanks.

big al writes:

to me there is a kind of condescension to these aid programs, where the assumption is these poor chumps need help; but what nags at me is the feeling that if i suddenly was taken to Uganda and put in a village, i would fail utterly at being a Ugandan villager, ie, the local people have a lot of knowledge about how to exist in their own environment. i am sympathetic to the arguments made by the people who say look if you want to help people, just give them money and let them decide for themselves, that will maximize any positive impact.

Classicallib writes:

Russ, touch 'em all!!! A grand slam homerun! Rarely do we have the opportunity to see the devastation of expert liberal do-gooderism so quickly, so clearly, or so completely. A petri dish of liberal and academic hubris, if you will.

Please ask Ms. Munk to stay on this. There's a 2nd book in here. This one will track Professor Sachs and see what becomes of his "passion" for lifting those not as smart as he. Does he learn, reassess, downsize his ambition and soldier on? Or does he find a new "passion" and wax poetic in the great salons of the upper East Side, and fleece a whole new set of fabulous liberals who care so much about the little people? The title can be, "The Chastened, Humbled Idealist," or "Where In The World Is Professor Sachs? And Whose Money Is He Wasting Now?"

Alan Clift writes:

The excess corn in a poverty area confuses me. First, it was food where food is scarce, right? That wasn't enough accomplishment? Not perfect because people weren't prepared for storage or how to transport. Still, it's food.

Then confuses me that no one saw the excess food as a resource to take advantage of. Did the locals stand around and ask 'Now what?'. Or did some have ideas and want to try being a middle man to sell to neighboring villages, or to people with animals, or figure out how to preserve?

For reflecting on the final impact on the village, am not sure how it differs from when a company closure impacts a town here.

Mort Dubois writes:

Going to have to buck the general consensus in the comments so far, and give Sachs some credit for trying something. As I was listening to the podcast, and knowing nothing else about the project than what was described, I was struck by the similarity between Sachs' approach and that of every entrepreneur. Anyone who has started a business will recognize the story arc: grand idea meets reality. Reality gains the upper hand. Plans need to be changed, the real situation is always vastly more complex than it seemed at first glance, people don't always cooperate, markets aren't what we thought they were, the whole enterprise is always at risk. Sometimes entrepreneurs succeed, sometimes they fail. We aren't used to hearing about failures, so a story like the Millenium Village project sounds like something unusual, the result of hubris. Nope. This is what progress looks like.

Russ is always expounding the virtues of emergent order - maybe forgetting that the emerging is a lot uglier than the order. If you expect every grand project, or even small project, to be so carefully planned that success is inevitable, you aren't paying attention to how the world actually works. I might have expected Russ to be reveling in the hard lessons that are learned when concept meets reality.

I started a company, with a grand idea, 27 years ago. 5 years after I started, I didn't have much to show for my efforts. A long time later, it provides a good livelihood for 18 workers and their families, and a product that clients happily pay for. Sometimes it just takes perseverance and a lot of banging of head against wall. And if I had failed, would I then be subject to special criticism for having tried?

Last thought: the dismal picture of the transformed village. Are those people who live there actually held in captivity? What is preventing them from resuming their former existence? It's not like they've been there for generations and forgot how to be nomads. If they are there still, maybe it's because, unsightly building materials and all, it's better than wandering across a blasted landscape, trying to find their next meal. If nothing else, Sachs has come to those people and showed them that there is something different available. Would they be better if if no one ever came to see them? If they were isolated and left to their own devices?

Michael Byrnes writes:

Mort,

Along those lines, maybe what is needed is a program that is much smaller, more flexible, and not managed from afar.

Todd Mora writes:

This podcast was excellent. It pointed to several economic and social science truths.

1) The law of unintended consequences is exponentially expanded by people who claim the moral high ground at the expense of reason and critical feedback.

2) The hubris of the west knows no bounds.

3) When you make decisions for others, that you have no skin in, you neither respect the people who you profess to help nor do you accept the responsibility for any negative outcomes.

This may have been one of the most sobering and enlightening Econ Talk's yet. It spoke to the need for all people who profess a desire to help, to abide by the hippocratic oath's requirement of "first do no harm." It also brought home again the fact that humility is in short supply among people in leadership positions.

tspare writes:

Great podcast. I think we are a bit harsh about the downside of Sach's effort. Its true that if this didn't work and it may have disappointed some people that are already having a very hard time. I think its good to know that getting on the stair out of poverty is not easy but at the same time, we should have a better reason for not trying just because the people may have been disappointed if things fail. I would like to point out that Singapore failed in a few things that they tried when they were just starting out. I am sure a few people had their dream dashed too.

wesmouch writes:

Russ
I just want to compliment you on the superb job you do interviewing people. You let them speak but ask the right questions to draw out points you want to make. Most amateur type podcasts (I include you here only because I am assuming you do not do this for a living) are much less polished and professional. Kudos to you for the great job you do. I was lucky to find your site and am heartened by the well thought out intellectual thread promoting Liberty.

Chambana writes:

In 1976, Chairman Mao died after 31 years in office and a trail of up to 70 million deaths that can be attributed to mass famine, executions, and imprisonments. It would be a gross understatement to suggest that Mao’s top-down policies were a failure.

Mao was succeeded by a more pragmatic Deng Xiaoping, who experimented with unconventional policies for a communist dictator. Deng’s legacy is creation of Special Economic Zones, which in late 1970s became incubators for current Chinese capitalism and which eventually pulled up to 500 million people out of poverty.

This was a top-down policy that worked. SEZs worked because they were placed next to Hong Kong, which acted as a buyer for startups from SEZs.

A parallel to Sachs’ MVPs is fascinating. Deng’s SEZs were strategically located in vicinity of a British colony with political and economics ties to West that had insatiable need for cheap Chinese labor. On the other hand, MVPs were irrationally placed in the middle of nowhere to demonstrate that Sachs’ economic remedies work anywhere and under any conditions. (One could speculate that Sachs consciously took the long odds thinking that skeptics may attribute eventual success of MVPs to aggregate African growth and not to his policies).

In summary, truth is messier than bottom-up libertarians or top-down socialists would like to think. Unfortunately for truth, it almost always loses to cheap sloganeering of economic extremists.

There are many top-down policies that worked, even some initiated by foreign ‘idealists’. Most recent example is Marshall Plan. Bottom-up libertarians just do not like to think of it as a top-down approach, plausibly due to its success.
P.S. Paul Collier on this program suggested that Africa has too many countries. People who are trapped in landlocked countries with poor geography cannot escape their destiny for political reasons. For this we can truly blame another top-down policy – one imposed by English and French colonialists who carved up the continent for personal gains.

Edward writes:

Another outstanding podcast.

While understanding Jeffrey Sachs is well-intentioned; not evil - the outcome of his real-world experiment on the world's most desperate people is excruciating and heartbreaking.

A great point was that "aid" or "charity" is very different from "development" - that aid has short run benefits but does little to solve underlying problems. Someone else mentioned Bill Gates in the comments here, and on his foundation's website it reads:

MYTH: We give money to Africa and nothing changes.

It would seem to me that Bill Gates' philanthropical work similarly involves a top-down strategy in "solving" the problem of extreme poverty, and he is often touted for his work. I suspect many may be confusing what his foundation's website refers to as "nutrition interventions", or other aid, with real development. Of course, I could be totally wrong.

Jason Scheppers writes:

An interesting podcast. While in general agreement, and may be it is my unussual sensibility, it seemed that Dr. Sachs was made a bit of a strawman.

I clearly think that China exemplifies how more free markets raise up people. But the Sachs theory were not so ruinous that they were a travisty to be tried. We all have egos and Sachs' may be outsized, but the Soros venture mentality should not condem in total, but racked up to experience.

One troubling thing that exemplifies how difficult it is to get things right. Ms. Munk in assessing what needs to be done, indicates that we need rigorous metrics of what works. This seemed to me to be a replication error of the UN food consultants. Many a detailed study has justified non-sense and the more detailed the more nonsensical.

The market test seems far more rigorous, and the likely answer to what is going to help. Ventures that are profitable or the losses from trying to sustain human life in a location that is not sustainable are the real metrics.

In ending, I thank Dr. Roberts and Ms. Munk for reminding me how lucky I am for being in a prosperous market economy. I hope I find some way to contribute to the betterment of less fortunate and do not demean the true beauty within all people even if they live on margin between life and death.

Geoff Harris writes:

Maybe I'm nitpicking, but I was confused by the discussion of maize. Munk said that the better seeds doubled the yield and everyone was happy. She goes on to complain that the people don't eat/value maize and that rats ate it in storage.

Yet if the yield measurably doubled, then there must have been a maize harvest before to measure against. So they must eat/value it.

And if they grew maize before, they must have stored at least some of it, if only for planting the next year. They didn't eat the whole crop on harvest day. So they would presumably have had rats and losses before as well. It is sad that they lost some but it was a loss from a bigger pie.

I did find the podcast interesting and disturbing and it makes me wonder at the commonsense and priorities of the people involved. But sniping at others efforts after the fact is easy. There is criticism of Sachs and his type here, but I wonder what others would suggest are better approaches. It sounds to me (in my ignorance, I should say) as if the most valuable thing that could be given the people would be better roads and jobs building and maintaining those roads. Is there a consensus on the right as to what a better approach would be?

Arnim Sauerbier writes:

I had to pause the podcast to "come up for air" when the fertilizer-fueled maize surplus debacle was revealed. So breathtakingly stupid. Such hubris. Very missing market!

The economists at South Park have another sure-fire economic plan for Sachs and African economic development:

1) Steal underwear
2) ???
3) Profit!

This was the plan by the "Underwear Gnomes". When I saw the episode, I thought the joke was too stupid and banal to be funny. I was wrong. Sachs' organization proves the deep cynicism of South Park's creators to be justified, whether funny or tragic.

Subsistence-level farming is a thousands of years old way of life that exists in areas where no (or very limited) markets have developed for ag. products. The advanced agriculture market ecosystem cannot be bootstrapped into existence with just a one-time fertilizer and seed subsidy.

I guess it takes Sachs millions of other people's money to learn.

Thanks Russ and Nina for the stories.

Stephen writes:

What I heard is the story of a man who declared himself CEO of dozens of African villages.

Like a CEO, he raised capital, negotiated contracts, and directed the productive potential of the people according to his idea of what the world is demanding.

He got all the prestige, praise, and boot-licking of a CEO (and then some!). And riches. Don't forget the riches. One key difference: when a company fails, it disbands; but when you declare yourself the CEO of villages, they can't disband, and the failure lingers...

Nick Zbinden writes:

@Mort Dubois

Nobody faults Sachs for trying something. He tries lot of things and does not admit that he fails. He promises much more then he can achieve, witch is just talking away money from projects who might have been better but did not have the superstar economist attached to it.

He talks the moral high ground. He does not even the consider the idea that people might end up worse then when he started. Doctors have principle called, first do no harm. The history of development has shown absolutely no concern about this sort of thing, and Sachs is right in this intellectual tradition.


Speed writes:

Nina Munk used the phrase, "whack-a-mole" to describe the series of problems that needed solving.

People with experience running a business or organization knows that "whack-a-mole" is business-as-usual and one important reason that experienced managers are required for success.

It would be great if Russ could get an interview with Bill and/or Melinda Gates. They could cover poverty in the first half hour and education in the second :)

Rick Groves writes:

While the struggles/setbacks/failures of the Millennium Villages are well documented and the critiques completely legitimate, I was a bit disappointed at the implied take-away from the podcast -- that attempts to spur growth in 3rd world communities were necessarily doomed to failure due to ignorance, hubris, etc of those who think they can make a difference. Sure, this wasn't said explicitly. But given the broader narrative of Econtalk and the tone of the conversation itself, the more casual listener is left with that conclusion.

Yet, much of the ID community rolls their eyes at the mistakes of the MVs right alongside external critics. That early attempts to design solutions failed does not mean attempts to design solutions are useless (or worse). As with the engineering of anything, early attempts usually fail, often spectacularly. But failure produces learning. A smarter design approach would limit costs, maximize learning, speed iteration, etc. The most productive place is something between pure emergent evolution and pure design.

The development community, broadly speaking, has come a long ways in the last decade. They have moved toward more grass-roots empowerment, focused on sustainability. They are beginning to integrate smarter design principals. The Adopt A Village program from Free The Children, for example, starts with social & political engagement at the community level, building leadership teams of locals who identify the greatest needs and co-develop culturally appropriate, sustainable solutions. Their tool box of programs starts with healthcare & education, but ultimately is geared toward the development of sustainable local industries, such as bee-keeping. The initiative itself has evolved and expanded over the past 15 years as the organization has continuous learned how to be more effective. And this is constantly being balanced against the flashier, shorter-term wins necessary to secure support for the foundational work.

Full disclosure: I served as an evaluator of FTC's Adopt A Village program. My study was mostly exploratory and further, longer-term evaluation is need (and being done). But I was quite impressed by their degree of thoughtfulness and thoroughness and optimistic about the future of the communities they support -- if realistic that there will be setbacks along the way.

I really enjoy Econtalk -- it helps to force me to think through liberal instincts with greater care and to temper my expectations. I realize that only so much can be done in 60 minutes. But between the Sachs podcast and this one, the treatment of ID has been caricatured based on work that isn't really reflective of the best the field has to offer. I realize much of Prof Roberts' approach is to poke holes in hubris, to "demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design", if you will. But to leave it there is to suggest that design is futile -- that simply is not true. It's hard; it's really hard. And it should be done thoughtfully and carefully. Econtalk could do more to show examples of design done well, particularly in domains where it has thus far focused on hole-poking.

Russ himself pointed out that he is often critiqued, unfairly in his judgment, for his preference for emergent solutions, with his critics painting him as a pure libertarian. I often find myself agreeing with his conclusions, but also think he chooses to stop short unnecessarily at times. The best econtalk podcasts, in my judgment, have been those that explored the intersection, those that have explored what man CAN do to improve the general condition in full consideration of limits of how little they really know.

Adam Wildavsky writes:

The road to prosperity is no secret. It has been known for hundreds of years. Poverty can be ended with only with freedom and property rights, or in other words capitalism. All historical evidence shows that it is both necessary and sufficient. What mystifies me is why Sachs and others ignore these prerequisite institutions. Russ, I am surprised you did not bring this up in your interview.

studio-842. writes:

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/09/soil/mann-text/1

A great interview but if other listeners felt so sad about this failed project, here is a ray of hope. There is one man in Africa who is stopping the desert and thanks to his incredible determination teaches fellow Africans a way out of poverty.

Julien Couvreur writes:

One of the best EconTalk episodes. It was deeply personal and touching, while covering a lasting mystery of humankind and economics (development and the bootstrapping out of subsistence).

An interesting companion talk is Jacqueline Novogratz's TED presentation, which focuses on supporting and investing in local solutions and enterprises (as opposed to pushing external solutions). http://www.ted.com/talks/jacqueline_novogratz_invests_in_ending_poverty.html

Along the same lines, a Mexican entrepreneur pursuing his idea of producing and distributing a popular local liquor (Mezcal) from his tiny village of origin. It's still a risky endeavor, but you see the potential for long-term sustainability: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/01/24/265708532/episode-512-can-mezcal-save-a-village

Dylan writes:

This was my favourite econtalk podcast to date (and I've listened to most of them!) Nina was incredibly moving and caused me to fundamentally question my understanding of poverty and aid (and post my first ever comment on econtalk! Yay!) Keep up the good work Rus, I cannot overstate how much I value your podcasts.

Jason W writes:

I've gotten about 20 minutes into the podcast and the thought that I can't get out of my head is that you cannot change people or their behavior with money or infrastructure. You're talking about changing the very fabric of their lives and although we may think it's for the better, we take it for granted that all those we are trying to help will agree and I just don't think that's the case.

This will take generations to change, not merely years or even decades.

But that doesn't mean we should give up or get discouraged. We as the tremendously privileged population of the world must continue to reach across the divide and offer our hand to lift up others. But it can't be one project or one person. It has to be a way of life or it will never succeed the way we envision.

Greg G writes:

Excellent podcast. Like many here, including Russ himself, I initially had trouble generating enthusiasm for this topic but found Nina Munk to be a fascinating guest once I really started listening.

As always, we see that all economic policies have unintended consequences. And that people on all sides rarely have their minds changed by new evidence (Kudos to Nina Munk for being an exception to this).

Virtually all commenters see in this story a confirmation of their existing philosophy. Including me.

DougT said in the second comment here that this kind of assistance creates a "pathological dependency." Many others echoed this view. But wait a minute! This project was based primarily on private charity, not taxation based government spending. Libertarians usually tell us that private charity is a better solution than a government based social safety net to the problem of poverty.

Well then let's not view a massive failure of private charity as a vindication of that idea.

David writes:

@greg
I don't think libertarians believe that specific charitable undertakings will always work as they are intended. The difference is the project used private resources and didn't force people, in the form of taxes, to pay for it. I don't think government attempts to end poverty have worked either. I also believe that the point of this podcast was to show that maybe we really don't know much about the roots of poverty and whether the solution's come from public or private entities perhaps the way poverty is viewed may need to change.

Geoff Harris writes:

Adam Wildavsky said, "Poverty can be ended with only with freedom and property rights, or in other words capitalism. All historical evidence shows that it is both necessary and sufficient."

I don't remember Munk saying that the villages lacked property rights or the freedom to do what they wanted with their land, so I assume they had both. If that is so, why are they still poor when according to your theory they have all that is needed to escape poverty? I would humbly suggest that your formula takes some other basic (and lacking) prerequisites for granted.

Bryan VN writes:

Russ your biase proves problematic here in the analysis that given an opportunity to succeed with better inputs for farming the fact that farmers weren't able to bottom down decide what to do with their excess is problematic for your thesis.

As for Ms Munk the Globe and Mailreview says it best
"So, in sum, on the one hand Nina Munk has written a fine contrarian polemic full to brimming with excellent reporting while on the other failing in any significant way to address the promise which led her to the reporting in the first place. If you find yourself entirely divided on the subject of extreme poverty and have precious little ambition to rectify that situation, I suggest you rush to buy The Idealist"

jasonw writes:

I feel like Russ got to the same point that I did which is that "treating" poverty requires that you work directly with the people and not their circumstances.

James writes:

Another fantastic podcast, thanks Russ.

I agree with the sentiment Russ voiced at one point, "maybe people just aren't meant to leave there?". I think poverty is often caused by a romantic attachment to one's homeland, no matter how much sense it makes to live there. Not every location on earth is habitable. If the land is infertile, if you have no access to water, if the population density is to low...maybe you should move? This isn't opinion, this is just harsh physical reality.

vikingvista writes:

[Comment removed for policy violation.--Econlib Ed.]

Arnim Sauerbier writes:

James:

People can and do "live there" but just more or less as they have done for millennia, with subsistence farming and/or nomadic herding and/or hunter-gathering.

Geoff Harris and Adam Wildavsky:

Though I have read Rothbard and the Austrians, I am not convinced that freedom and property were always and everywhere necessary conditions to escape subsistence farming. Consider an advanced civilization like ancient Egypt. Most Egyptians lived on the land, but few owned it. Slavery was accepted in that society, so there was not much freedom or property rights there, yet they were far advanced beyond tribal cultures like those of central Africa.

Perhaps what we know of as ancient Egypt, with its strict hierarchy grew out of a more primitive society where for some time property rights were respected? I don't think we have solid evidence for or against that theory.

The most basic ingredient necessary for advancement out of the dirt of absolute poverty is creation of farming surpluses and storage. It is absolutely necessary for the farmers to generate excesses to feed other members of society who specialize and work in toolmaking, crafts, arts, housebuilding, and defense and in some places walled fortifications. Individual property rights for those farmers seems to be the best way to incentivize production (and safeguard the surplus), but I think our knowledge of early human history is too limited to prove it was the only way.

Based on what was described in the interview, the farmers of the sample villiage in Uganda couldn't generate enough surpluses for property rights to matter much. They didnt have the kind of soil that could generate surpluses without bringing in high-yield seeds and fertilizer from without. Secondly, what was produced couldn't be profitably shipped to remote markets. The stupidity of the millennium project in this instance is facepalm inducing.

Mark writes:

Great podcast. I'm always skeptical of the "We have to do something" crowd whether its saving the world or just solving work related problems. As Russ pointed out, they often act as if they have the moral high ground and when you start to list off the numerous barriers or possible consequences to their actions your told your just being Negative or otherwise ignored.
Meanwhile the Wunder Kids get the limelight and accolades and if you happen to point out that their solution actually failed or made things worse you just get that "Deer in the Headlights" look.

I've always like the quite, supposedly attributed to Winston Churchill: However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Arnim Sauerbier wrote, “Though I have read Rothbard and the Austrians, I am not convinced that freedom and property [rights] were always and everywhere necessary conditions to escape subsistence farming.”

  • “When China granted highly diluted rights of ownership to the rural residents who tilled vast community-owned agricultural plots, yield per acre and rural standards of living rose measurably.” (Age of Turbulence, 251)

  • “Throughout the Soviet period, the productivity rates of private plots far exceeded their size. With only 3 percent of total sown area in the 1980s, they produced over a quarter of agricultural output.” (http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/cccp-ag-gorbachev.htm)
Simon Cranshaw writes:

Does this also suggest that it may be more useful to come at the problem from the role of profiteer than from the role of aid giver? Someone looking to generate profits would be incentivised to look for businesses with a more sustainable economic potential. Perhaps they would be more thorough in checking the details of the viability of maize production. Is it another example of the case that the "selfish" individual coming to make profit actually does more good than the "kind" individual coming to "help"?

SaveyourSelf writes:

@Simon Cranshaw

WELL SAID!

I think a valid variation on your statement is that trade is the greatest of all charity--specifically trade done within an environment where all parties are well informed; where competition is plentiful; where all actions are voluntary; and where Justice is the moral standard maintained by the individuals and upheld by government at every level.

Brian Gundlach writes:

Russ,

Thanks! Great interview. I admire Ms. Monk’s courage in following through with publishing a story that she freely admits contradicts her preconceived notions at the outset. Unfortunately this is a tale that repeats itself on a daily basis worldwide. Many programs such as this are judged only on their good intentions and have no accountability for their results. One of the most striking statements in the interview to me was how the highly educated project manager had no clue that the fertilizer used in prior crops could leach into the soil and corrupt an “organic” crop. Thanks again for the work you do. Many so called professional journalist could take a couple pages from the Roberts book of conducting an interview.

Andrew Melnyk writes:

I've listened to virtually every Econtalk podcast and this one resonated most deeply. The arrogance and morally superiority attitude of the vast majority of development practitioners is why I left the field, in frustration, after 6 years. This definitely ranks among the top 10 podcasts, and may very well be the best yet.

Wes L writes:

Great podcast as always. For some reason, the thing I latched on to was how often Ms. Monk applied the "I'm not an economist, but ..." qualifier to her opinion about what was going on. It seems strange that this is used so often because (a) we are all economists and (b) it gives the impression that a professional economist would know the truth about what is going on. I think it says a lot about our need to believe that there is someone out there that has the answers. It's kind of like when I was young and just knew that my dad was the all knowing expert on everything.

Josh T writes:

I really enjoyed this podcast and I agree that trying to engineer economic development by outsiders, though well intentioned, is often an inefficient allocation of resources. I wondered if on a future podcast you might discuss the project GiveDirectly. They give money to the poor in Africa and let them do with it what they want.

DW writes:

I was surprised that I had to wait until nearly the end of the podcast to learn that the predecessors of the people in the village had traditionally not been farmers and/or that the land was not permanently settled and agricultural. Seems like difficult starting material for this experiment, lack of infrastructure may not be the only reason for lack of success.

Krishnan writes:

Substitute "Government" for "Jeffrey Sachs/UN/do gooders" and substitute "Poverty in the US" for "African Villages" (or Millennium Villages Project" -and it is eerie how similar the results are.

Johnson started the "War" on poverty - and 21 (or so) trillion dollars later, a similar fraction of the US seems to mired in poverty (yes, there are issues of measurement)

The idea that Sachs (or other do gooders) can FIX ANY problem because THEY are just smart and know better than the people IS the problem - Sachs will never, ever accept the idea that perhaps the way to solve a problem is NOT to impose a solution.

This was one sad, depressing podcast - and a reminder of how poorly we are dealing with the truly needy - and worse, do not care to change how we are dealing with the needy/poor.

Charles Erickson MD writes:

Rotary International District 5650 has been involved in Zambia for about 8 years and have placed in over 20 boreholes and are funding agricultural projects and conducting nutritional education with local neighborhood health workers. We are seeing some success, but it is slow. The nutritional status of the children in Nsongwe Village is improving a bit.
However, we need better data to show what works. I would hope that Econtalk would have Esther Duflo discuss the concepts she espouses i.e controlled clinical trials which can show what strategies have the desired effect of improving lives. She has shown for example that deworming children has the greatest impact on school attendance.
C Erickson

B Wilber writes:

When I heard about the excess corn, I also thought about distilling it. I'm not trying to be flippant or humorous. A free exchange of ideas with a single person knowledgeable and some very basic equipment could have turned all of the excess corn into alcohol. The alcohol could be used as fuel for a generator or stoves or possibly a vehicle. Or, indeed, some whiskey could have been made. Either way, this would have been better than the despair of watching it all rot. It would have been a great example of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Ron Crossland writes:

I was struck by your compassion and patience, Russ. I appreciated Munk's stories, but wished she'd been better able to answer your direct questions succinctly. While her stories are riveting and compelling, they merely confirm what we already know about this type of approach.

Compressing generational timespan solutions upon a remote, illiterate, disconnected village in the hopes they will "take root" over just two or three harvests has never worked as far as I know.

Steve Sedio mention Novogratz - she could be an interesting follow-on guest for this topic. Her "patient capitalism" is an approach with more merit and success than Sachs. Might be interesting to speak with someone who works from the ground up, rather than the top down.

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