Think, Read, and Write: Jeffrey Sachs on the Millennium Villages Project

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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Announcing EconTalk Extras... Going deeper...Sachs and Munk ...

Hello! I'm Amy Willis, and I'm a Fellow at Liberty Fund, the host of the Library of Economics and Liberty, and I work with Russ and the other fine folks at Econlib.

As Russ mentioned, we want to provide more opportunities for you to engage with our content, each other, us, and people we've yet to know. To that end, here are some questions for your consideration based on this week's episode with Jeffrey Sachs. We'd love it if you posted your responses in the comments, shared them on social media, used them in your classroom, used them to spark a conversation at the dinner table...well, you get the idea. We can't wait to hear from you!


1. What are the goals the MVP project aspires to, and what does Sachs believe makes them different from other programs aimed at alleviating poverty?To what extent does Sachs convince you that this strategy will be more effective than its predecessors?

2. Roberts cites a Lancet article that raised questions about the effectiveness of the MVP programs. What was the basis of the criticism, and how does Sachs counter?

3. Roberts questions whether smaller, more narrowly targeted programs might be more effective for given problems (such as malaria) than Sachs' approach. Why does Roberts suggest such efforts might be more successful, and to what extent do you agree?

4. Throughout, Roberts argues that top-down approaches to aid are less desirable. Yet he and Sachs seem to disagree regarding what exactly constitutes a top-down approach, and whether the MVP initiatives would qualify as such. In particular, Russ challenges Sachs on the initiative which introduced maize (also discussed in the Nina Munk episode). Sachs replies that, "You could have said the same thing...about malaria nets." What does he mean by this, and to what extent do you agree with Sachs?

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Jim writes:

I'd like to submit a question myself, with regard to the Sachs interview and subsequent comments:

"Does the moral impetus of a problem render discussion about a particular solution's efficacy taboo?"

Amy Willis writes:

@Jim, That's a GREAT question. I, too, would love to hear what folks think..And what you think, too!

Thomas A. Coss writes:

If there is any moral duty I would think that a robust discussion in regard to the efficacy of any solution would be required. The central caution in this spirited and absolutely delightful conversation remains in play: are we prepared to complete the job completely?

In my view, the moral duty of economics is to ask the right questions and pursue the proper analysis to assure we do, even if we appear like a "Debbie Downer" in the process. Absent this pursuit of caution we will most certainly deploy the social equivalent of a "head-fake" to those we so desperately want to help. We're not that smart.

Thomas A. Coss writes:

If there is any moral duty I would think that a robust discussion in regard to the efficacy of any solution would be required. The central caution in this spirited and absolutely delightful conversation remains in play: are we prepared to complete the job completely?

In my view, the moral duty of economics is to ask the right questions and pursue the proper analysis to assure we do, even if we appear like a "Debbie Downer" in the process. Absent this pursuit of caution we will most certainly deploy the social equivalent of a head-fake to those we so desperately want to help. We're not that smart.

Tony writes:

Definitely one of the most difficult EconTalk interviews that I've listened to in a long time. I found myself furious at times, sympathetic at others, and I have both criticism and compliments for Jeffery Sachs and this topic.

Having worked on a UN project this past year as a contractor, I have a very different understanding of what Jeffery means when he refers to "local experts" and "community decision making". Yes, there is local input from some very smart, capable people (aka "host nationals"). In my experience, however, these local participants work in a confined space. Despite their best intentions, they are often regulated to writing reports and conducting survey which, in the end, simply reaffirm the project's goals and budget, and when that magical synergy doesn't materialize, well, its a "lessons learned" that can be applied to the next project. Don't get me started on the compensation between official "advisors" (hand up) and local "experts". If the locals play their cards right, though, they can use their experience to apply for scholarships abroad, and many return to do the real work.

In defense of Jeffery and the millennium development goals, and in spite of failures such as the above, let's give Jeffery credit for success in an area where normal market theory fails. When in drought, a farmer will let his cattle eat all the grass today even if it means nothing but desert remains tomorrow. These people have only one choice - survival. Likewise, no one working in development can fix the long-term problems that cause poverty (bad governance, corruption, market manipulation,etc), but they can provide positive incentives and demonstrate alternatives. Perfect? Not at all, but in the end, its a decent play when you know the deck is stacked against you.

Final thought - if we simply gave people money as aid, are we creating a market for opportunists to steal this money? I don't have an answer to this question.

Anyways, done my rant, and thanks for your audience. I couldn't listen to the entire episode in one sitting, but I'm glad people are talking about these issues (development, aid, intervention) outside of the usual sound bytes that tend to frame them. Certainly the aid industry has multiple beneficiaries, and those that benefit the most are often not the ones you see in the videos. Funny how supply and demand works like that.

Joe Siegel writes:

Definitely most spell binding econtalk I can remember. So much to comment on so I'll limit it to one issue.

Sachs disagrees with Russ about how markets are created. He disputes Russ's proposition that markets have to create themselves, as opposed to the concept of successful artificial creation. (I agree with Russ.)

Sachs uses an example hypothesizing the building of a port and local infrastructure somewhere, naturally causing entrepreneurs to step in and create a market. This is not necessarily the case.

When I was stationed at Scott AFB near Belleville, IL in the 1990s, a joint use field called Mid America airport was created adjacent to the base, initiated by the pork barrel machinations of then Sen. Paul Simon, D-IL and a few others. 100s of millions of dollars of taxpayer money was spent under the guise of relieving traffic congestion at nearby Lambert St. Louis airport. (They recently built a new runway there.) This included moving an entire military housing area to make way for a taxiway.

Many of the years since opening have seen an empty runway and terminal. A few minor bitplayer airlines have come and gone.

So there you have it. "Build it and they will come" doesn't bear up to scrutiny in my opinion, no matter how convinced the central planners are of their prescience. Markets are not erector sets.

Drew Yallop writes:

Thanks for asking.

1. Dr Sachs was less than convincing on the efficacy of MVP. The problem for me was the frequent pivoting away from the results of the project to the macro results of Africa as a whole - malaria, AIDS, agricultural productivity. However, the health care innovations he describes are intriguing. Perhaps the greatest value of the project will be as an incubator of new processes. Whether this could be done in more cost effective ways is another question.

2. As I heard it, Dr Sachs implied that the lack of improvement relative to improvement outside the villages was due to general improvement everywhere due partially to his global efforts on AIDS, malaria and so on. Fair enough and good on him.

He also pointed out that the paper was based only on preliminary data and the real results would come in 2015. He could have put the topic quickly behind him by admitting that the paper was premature and a probably a mistake.

3. For me this was Russ' compelling argument. Ironically I think the most suggestive evidence in support of the argument was provided by Dr Sachs' repeated, and sometimes tedious, reference to the success of his Malaria and AIDS initiatives.

4. It think RR's unstated premise was that Hayek's knowledge problem makes successful implementation of top down solutions difficult or impossible and can cause more harm than good. Dr Sachs understands where Russ is going and counters with the "local experts and communities" argument, the implication being that having people on site working with community leaders solves the knowledge problem. Better than directing things from NY undoubtedly but the word "expert" always raises a red flag with me. Are they experts who are willing to lay down their biases and preconceptions and learn the unique dynamics of the village culture?

And how scalable is the "local expert" solution? It could be another Head Start story.

Some other thoughts.

Enough with the malaria nets already. Befogged the discussion.

Long discussion on costs in USD but never adjusted for PPP.

Dr Sachs was determined to get us anchored on the $60 number even though it was $120 with donations.

After reading "How Asia Works" I have to disagree with RR's cautions on increasing ag productivity. The author asserts that land reform, extension services, protected markets, and subsidies for fertilizer and other inputs were key in the first stages of East Asian growth. Ag productivity increased enormously. The resulting surplus then fuelled industrialization. Relevant to Africa? Don't know, but maybe.

The interview was a bit distressing. Dr Sachs along with others have done things that have alleviated the suffering and saved the lives of millions. He is to be admired and honoured. But his defence against any criticism may indicate that he is succumbing to hubris. An admission of fallibility, of a capacity to make a mistake would have served him well.

[Minor edit made, with permission of commenter.--Econlib Ed.]

Steve writes:

Well.

I applaud the sentiment to help those in need-- we should all be called to this in our lives.

Question: can a population be "improved" (watch out for this bias, by the way) if the people themselves don't want it? There must be a reason these populations are in the state they're in...

[comment edited with permission of commenter--Econlib Ed.]

Gavin Brett Melles writes:

Q2
As I understood it the stats calculations are bad for child mortality. Reminds me of another econtalk about bad numbers out of africa e.g WB. Not sure what sachs thought

[That other EconTalk was Jerven on Measuring African Poverty and Progress.--Econlib Ed.]

Gavin Brett Melles writes:

http://www.humanosphere.org/2013/10/learning-from-the-millennium-villages-project/
I notice here also with reference to above that a new culture of impact evaluation has emerged, e.g. CoD, this may may help avoid mistakes in future. MSc in sus dev at SOAS we discuss this in dev planning

Don Tillman writes:

First off, I'm a huge fan of EconTalk, and a big thanks for opening up an additional forum for discussion.

A few questions:

1. If my understanding is correct, the primary goal of the MVP is to address poverty. This should be measurable. Is the number of people who have been lifted out of poverty as a direct result of the MVP available?

2. It appears to me that the discussion of the efficacy of the MVP is a slight variation of the classic "if you teach a man to fish" proverb. The difference between giving a man a fish and teaching a man how to fish is that the former is a dependency and the latter is self-sustaining. And it seems to me that the MVP is running on the dependency side.

3. Providing mosquito nets is good. And that was mentioned many times. But aren't African people capable of manufacturing and distributing their own mosquito nets? Wouldn't it be much better to help the people setup up their own mosquito net manufacturing?

Matthew Merrell writes:

[Comment removed for irrelevance. Comments in this thread should address the questions asked above or pose new, equivalent, substantive questions that are relevant to the content of the original podcast episode. Please see our Comment Policies for more information.--Econlib Ed.]

tspare writes:

I will put my response here:

1. My understanding of MVP's goal is to use a few locations in Africa to demonstrate that there is a sustainable way to lift people out of poverty. This is what I recall from my reading of Sach's book "the end of poverty", this is not what I got from the econtalk episode between Sachs and Russ Roberts.

2. Sachs doesn't think Lancet Article is a good argument because the project is not yet done its 10 year goal. Also some of the same method now has been taken up by the government and have been applied outside of MVP so it diminishes the difference between MVP and areas outside of it.

3. As a loyal econtalk, I think Russ is saying that our understanding of economics or much of the world is very limited so really our effort should match the understanding we have.

4. Not sure about this one.


David Zetland writes:

I came here to comment on Sachs' contradictory one-two of "we're making fantastic progress" and "you can't say that because we don't have the data yet." He's a smart guy, obviously, but he cannot eat his cake and have it.

This observation applies to the whole conversation as well as #2, as Sachs basically denounces his own article while promising "big results" in the future.

I'm also VERY interested in the "local African experts" that Sachs keeps referring to. It's common in development debates to say "I'm more local than you -- I've VISITED that village" to shut down opposing perspectives. The role of local experts will be the making or breaking of the MVP.

Finally, I'll say (as a water "expert") that the provision of safe water is far more complex than most development programs (e.g., World Bank, Charity:water, et al.) can handle. I'd be curious to see how the MVP addresses water from a bottom up perspective.

Scott Morgan writes:

I'm impressed by the thought provoking questions and comments above.

Normally Russ is skeptical about the accuracy and meaning of measurements. At the end of the podcast he seems to insist that measurements should be the basis for evaluating this project. Sachs, in this case, is suggesting that results are difficult to measure, not least because of the lack of a control group.

The MVP projects are catalysts. The moral justification for them is that since we think we can help we should try. If someone is about to be run down by a bus we must yell or, better, shove. At least we've learned that 'locals' are experts and must be included in and hopefully lead efforts to stimulate positive change.

Russell writes:

#4 - On some level maybe Sachs is correct that the MVP is not top-down. Maybe. So, let's ask the question in a different way: Is the MVP a bottom-up approach? It seems obvious that the answer is no.

Fred Kavanaugh writes:

On question 1, it is surprising, but Dr. Sachs quibbles on the details than the plan of the MVP. As best as I can understand the materials from the informational webpages for the project, it is a multiple intervention effort. . .clean water. . .visiting nursing assistants . . mosquito netting, . . everything but the kitchen sink, done as cheaply as possible, with as much jerry-built equipment and minimally trained people sufficient to get it done. Address as many different needs as cheaply as possible, since one distinct intervention, like clean water, may have no benefit if the village dies of starvation in the interim.

Bundle all the efforts in one large package that should have complimentary benefits. . .higher birth weights may reduce dysentery deaths in the second year of life, etc. . . The correct measure of success is the the dozen to twenty different metrics all of the interventions were supposed to improve.

I cannot understand why Dr. Sachs is so allergic to the simple declarative statement, "I don't know why one factor, malaria infection, didn't improve", but it got in the way of any discussion of the program and its effects. The only question any decent person is interested in is, "Did the bundle of intervention (costing $60 or $120 a year) produce results that would make the average American thrilled to drop $10 or 20/ month and save a life?" The MVP has to be judged on the aggregate effect and Dr. Sachs did not want to bring that obvious point up. The question of the results were pushed out to the end of the project and that was the real tragedy, lost in Dr. Sachs' resentment at any criticism.

Fred Kavanaugh writes:

On the fourth question, I don't think Dr. Sachs bothered to answer it. . Many of the interventions described in the MVP webpages would fall under public goods. . .inoculations, clean water, monitoring and treating communicable diseases. These tasks are done by government in most parts of the world and even in the United States, the CDC isn't on many libertarian's top ten of government agencies to abolish. Inoculating all the children under 2 or providing clean water will not distort the economic decision making of the poor, it's like some sort of manna from heaven, with no comparable ex ante goods or services being displaced.

Many of the interventions can't be described as economic development efforts, but experiments in provisions of public goods - not top-down or bottom-up, but maybe sideways. The agricultural products and other efforts. . .they may or may not degenerate into the standard "Horrible Junior Achievement project - gone hideously wrong" that is common in aid efforts, but time will tell.

When Dr. Sachs said that there was some buy-in from local governments, it was an important point, one that should be emphasized and studied a lot more. If the local government was willing to spend its own money, its own political capital to implement a new program, then it was definitely a breakthrough. One of the great failings of the foreign aid that pores into Africa is that it shrinks, replaces or diminishes the government's responsibility to their own citizens to provide the services that are regularly promised.

Amy Willis writes:

@Scott, that's an interesting point about measurement, and the perspectives on it. But is Sachs suggesting that the results can't be measured, or that the requisite data isn't available yet (until 2016). Might the case be MORE convincing if one were to concede that measurement isn't the best way to evaluate the program? And if it's not, what is? Or should evaluation be shelved entirely?

Amy Willis writes:

@Fred, you make an excellent point re: public goods. Thinking about which of the efforts discussed should be characterized as aid and which as public goods would be a good exercise. Of course, for those deemed to be public goods, the tricky question re: provision rears its ugly head. Is is clear in the MVP project what the ultimate source of provision is (i.e., is it ultimately public or private)?

Shannon writes:

#4 - Sachs counter is interesting. I suppose Sachs means that the decision to purchase and use mosquito nets instead of some other intervention is made by someone at the top. Perhaps you could give them an equivalent amount of money and offer them the ability to purchase mosquito nets and see what they do. He or his experts might conclude (maybe rightly) that they would not buy nets. So in this sense it is top down.

However, I also think that this is a very specific intervention. It is NOT an integrated approach. The integrated approach is what Sachs is advocating, and to demonstrate its success he points to specific interventions that have had success.

Living in the United States, I don't think we appreciate the culture and institutions we have that allow our markets to function as successfully as they do. When problems come up, these markets allow for bottom-up solutions. No experts need to tell us how to solve the problems. Although I must admit our government loves to try to do just that, and people still love to look to the politicians for answers.

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