Jeffrey Sachs on the Millennium Villages Project
Mar 17 2014

Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and the Millennium Villages Project talks with EconTalk host about poverty in Africa and the efforts of the Millennium Villages Project to fight hunger, disease, and illiteracy. The project tries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in a set of poor African villages using an integrated strategy fighting hunger, poverty, and disease. In this lively conversation, Sachs argues that this approach has achieved great success so far and responds to criticisms from development economists and Nina Munk in her recent EconTalk interview.

Jeffrey Sachs on the Millennium Villages Project
Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and the Millennium Villages Project talks with EconTalk host about poverty in Africa and the efforts of the Millennium Villages Project to fight hunger, disease, and illiteracy. The project tries to achieve the Millennium Development...
Nina Munk on Poverty, Development, and the Idealist
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...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Filip Eckstein
Mar 17 2014 at 8:12am

This was an excellent surprise, I’ve read The Idealist right after the interview, so I was very happy to see a differing answer in such a short time.

Mar 17 2014 at 9:53am

Wow! I don’t I’ve heard a more testy interview! It was hard for me to understand the claims and counter-claims because Jeffrey Sachs is so defensive. I’ve never heard a self-described optimist sound so depressed about his work.

Perhaps it’s because his life’s work is being questioned in a profound way, but I tend to think that the issue stated is not the real issue. People can manage their words, but less-easily their emotions and the stress levels in their voices. Here’s what I heard:

Sachs was most defensive when Nina Munk’s work was mentioned. He didn’t think she spent enough time with him. But she had on-the-ground experience of what happened after Sachs helicopered off. I think he’s especially sensitive to being labeled as a “helicopter economist” who plans peoples’ lives in Africa from his office in Manhattan.

I think that is a real criticism. Where are the local, national economists here? Why doesn’t Sachs engage development economists from Nairobi or Harare or Gabrone? Surely they have more skin in the game than Sachs does, who can always teach another course at Columbia or Harvard or Chicago or whoever bids highest for his rock-star status. Have all the local development economists been captured by their respective governments? Or perhaps such local talent would eclipse the bright, shining rays the stream from the western expert, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-spending. Or, as Russ would say, there might be a perfectly innocent explanation.

I’ll have to listen to it again, perhaps a third time (after listening again to Nina Munk, to get the content straight. Once again, Russ, great job. And if you interview a hostile guest like that again, you might want to wear a flak jacket!

Mar 17 2014 at 10:24am

“The question is whether that inexpensive, as you concede, approach is superior to the integrated approach which you are selling. You’re selling an idea, which is very ambitious, which is much more expensive than bed nets; and the question is whether the money has been well spent, and whether there’s the bang for the buck. So, that’s the challenge–can we distinguish between the effectiveness of a cheap, small intervention that I think everyone accepts as a good idea, assuming that it does persist, and the broader ambitious claims you’re making for the project as a whole.”

This is a fantastic point/question from Russ that Sachs never really answered. His only response was “How could you question what im doing” No wonder Munk found him arrogant.

Mar 17 2014 at 11:27am

Another well done interview. Given the two perspectives (Ms Monk’s and Mr Sachs’s) I have little doubt which one is the more accurate, because one of those people was defensive, combative, vague, thin-skinned, and prone to filibuster; and, one was not.

Matt C
Mar 17 2014 at 11:28am

Russ you should invite Bill Gates to discuss this topic. I loved his TED talks, you two would have a great conversation!

[duplicate comment removed–Econlib Ed.]

Trent Whitney
Mar 17 2014 at 11:51am

First of all, I have a great deal of respect for both Russ and Prof. Sachs for the manner in which this interview was conducted. Rather than devolving into a shouting match, it remained a coherent conversation – throughout the time when Prof. Sachs expressed more than a little frustration about how his work had been characterized in the Nina Munk podcast. If fairness in an interview is defined by giving a person ample time to make/defend his point, then I would hope that Prof. Sachs believes he got a fair interview at EconTalk.

My criticism about today’s podcast is actually for Russ – it seemed about 5 or 6 times you prefeaced a question with “now the key question is…” or “THE question is…” – and those questions always seemed to be different. It’s a stylistic criticism, but when I keep hearing an interview refer back to “the key question,” then I’m expecting the same question (e.g. keep asking Prof. Sachs “But how do you measure the effectiveness of your program?”).

Lastly, I found it interesting that multiple times, Prof. Sachs challenged Russ to visit Africa to see the results for himself. Given that it’s not possible for every donor, every supporting business, every supporting government, etc., to visit Africa for themselves, isn’t the onus on Prof. Sachs to present compelling proof/metrics regarding the project’s success? I think this is the main point of his frustration because he believes he’s being criticized and evaluated when the project isn’t complete – and he can’t offer the compelling proof/metrics until it is. Hence, the offer of a return podcast in 2016, which would be great to listen to. My guess is that there still won’t be compelling proof/metrics by then, but I don’t know. What I do know is that I hope that the horrible conditions that these poor people (and others around the world) live in, are improved. We can certainly all agree on the outcome even if there are disagreements about how best to get there.

Todd M
Mar 17 2014 at 12:06pm

I listened to this podcast as I ran this morning and was floored by how Dr. Sachs completely played out the profile painted of him by Ms. Munk. He dismissed any and all data that contradicts his current point of view (even if he provided the data).

He began many of his answers using the first person pronoun and rarely (if never) conceded a point that was critical. Dr. Roberts was extremely gracious in allowing Dr. Sachs to interrupt at will and go off topic. There is an old adage about rope and hanging that may be applicable here.

Is there anyway we could get a pay-per-view debate between Dr. Munger and Dr. Sachs? It would raise a lot of money for the MVP.

I vote this as my #1 for 2014.

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

Carl Pearson
Mar 17 2014 at 12:35pm

Pausing in the podcast – Dr. Roberts should definitely take Dr. Sachs up on the invitation to visit rural Africa.

Unfortunately, there’s little perspective to be gained unless you’re there for several weeks, away from Westernized conveniences, so make sure to plan to record podcasts there.

Mr. Econotarian
Mar 17 2014 at 12:42pm

I am kind of amazed that these words did not show up: “permits”, “corruption”, “bribes”. Did the MDC’s never pay a bribe to government officials to operate? How did they get around import controls and tariffs?

Also I wish Russ had asked Mr. Sachs what was the difference in China’s successful and completely internally-funded massive reduction in absolute poverty, and what Mr. Sachs is trying to do.

Sachs talks about the Chinese shipping shoes out of Addis Ababa, which is great, but of course challenging because (from the Economic Freedom Index):

“Corruption is a significant problem in Ethiopia. The underdeveloped judiciary is officially independent, but its judgments rarely deviate from government policy. All land is owned by the state but can be leased for up to 99 years. Property and contractual rights are recognized, but enforcement is weak. State-owned and party-owned businesses receive preferential access to land leases and credit….The minimum capital required to start a business is about twice the average annual income. The underdeveloped labor market traps much of the labor force in informal economic activity. Monetary stability has been weak, and subsidies for the state-led development model hinder private-sector growth…Ethiopia has a 10.4 percent average tariff rate, and it can take several weeks to import goods. Investment in several sectors of the economy is restricted by the government. The government strongly influences lending and funds state-led development projects by forcing private banks to purchase treasury bills.”

Eric Falkenstein
Mar 17 2014 at 1:19pm

So, if all of Africa does better on malarial deaths, and Millenium villages don’t do better, Sachs will assume that’s a success. That really stacks the deck on falsification.

If the data were as clear as he presumed, he wouldn’t be so frustrated and defensive.

Jacob A. Geller
Mar 17 2014 at 2:01pm

Best line in the conversation is the last: “I hope we can talk about other things even before then, because it’s always fun to talk to you. And with you.”

…right after interrupting Russ ~5,187 times.

Matthew Barton
Mar 17 2014 at 3:01pm

The difference between these two men is that, while both believe deeply that he is right, Russ is at least willing to entertain the possibility that he’s wrong…

Sachs’ unyielding faith in his own ideas and his incapacity to even consider thoughtful criticism leads me to believe that he, like many planners before him, is afflicted with the fatal conceit…

Todd D. Mora
Mar 17 2014 at 3:05pm

I’m not sure that it has ever been easier for Dr. Roberts to show someone for who they are using so few words. Ms. Munk had Dr. Sachs true to form and all Dr. Roberts had to do was let Dr. Sachs speak to prove it.

To paraphrase the former NFL football coach Dennis Green “Jeffery Sachs is who we thought he was.”

Excellent podcast.

Mar 17 2014 at 3:40pm

Nice that Sachs could get air time so soon after being criticized. Too bad his responses was as elusive as one could expect from a politician. Short on content, long on wording.

However he had one point IMO. The market failure about (not) buying mosquito nets are the same as the market failure of farmers using non-optimal seed (in so far that can be evaluated at this stage). So I do not understand Russ defense “that doesn’t imply that increasing the productivity of maize farming is going to lead to a better life the way malaria bed nets did. It’s not the same.” Is Russ implying that long term effects of higher productivity can be bad for e.g. environment? Too many implicit assumptions for me apparently…

Mar 17 2014 at 3:48pm

He really doesn’t want to let you point out that the treatment group did worse than the control group…..

Mar 17 2014 at 3:59pm

Wow, great interview. Incredible discipline to remain super calm while asking really insightful questions. I really wanted the guest to respond with statistics and broader data, but it seems like he takes all this very personally and anecdotally. If I were him, I would be much more interested in regular measurement of results. He kept saying “we will see next year”, but why not see on a more frequent basis?

Lee Jamison
Mar 17 2014 at 5:00pm

I actually thought Sachs did a reasonably good job of defending himself. On the one hand he comes in at a disadvantage having had a negative introduction through the Munk interview. His defensiveness is understandable in that context.

He also speaks to a number of issues with which I have sympathy. Clearly it is a good idea to try to increase the awareness of the most basic medical knowledge and to increase the distribution of drugs with which to increase survival times for victims of AIDS, nets treated to reduce exposure to malaria, etc.

Where he falls down is in his assessment of what constitutes a “market” evidence of efficacy. Continuing an intervention with government resources may show impressive results, but it may also just show evidence the government perceives an opportunity to be seen gratuitously as being important. If villagers will part with some measure of value for medical expertise and testing strips, though, that is a spontaneously developing private market. Additionally, the ultimate test is in whether the economic capacity of the people served is sustainable without the input of outside subsidies and (my own favorite bugaboo) expertise.

I think this contest was a draw.

Fred Kavanaugh
Mar 17 2014 at 5:08pm

We can be sure that Dr. Sachs and his scheme will fail miserably. . .simply because he has repeated word for word the same grand assurances that the last 1 trillion dollars of aid spending have been wrapped in. The sequence is always the same:

1. This is a bold new idea.
2. We’ve gotten it right this time. . we’ve got all the controls, technology, etc. right this time
3. Anyone who doubts us are just mean-spirited cynical evil people, since we are doing God’s work.
4. Our interim results are astounding.
5. (silence) wait five years and we’ll have a 60 minutes episode on it.

There is so much difficulties and challenges that Africans face in their troubles, we can hope that the next effort could have a healthy dose of humility about the efforts made for their benefit. Any commercial effort in the developed world has to answer the question, “What are we getting for the money?” Shouldn’t the Millenium Village effort meet the same requirements as a new factory or bank branch? No one doubting Mr. Sachs’ good intentions, but a simple clear answer to a simple clear question that needs to be answered isn’t abuse.

Sri Hari
Mar 17 2014 at 5:28pm

This podcast will be sighted as a case study in conducting interviews on highly charged economic/political matters between two very distinguished individuals. It was a pity Sachs was not appreciating Russ’s point that the experiment in interventionist economic policies may be cruel in instilling false hope in the recipients (of assistance). Nina Munk is sure to give Sachs nightmares. She exposed the emperor with no clothes.

Under enormous pressure Russ articulated his points lucidly. Sachs defensive attitude reminded me of Russ’s interview with Bhagwati. Both Sachs & Bhagwati are so sure of their opinion. They seem to forget the basic tenant of any economic theory that it (the theory) is influenced by unseen forces, and the final results could be overtaken by unintended consequences.

Jeff b
Mar 17 2014 at 6:45pm

Dr Roberts, I’m not sure what to make of this podcast. But I wonder, going back to your old podcast with robin Hanson on the couch, that if there us anything Dr Sachs could have shared with you about the project that would change your mind about his work. Put another way what evidence would he/the project have to demonstrate to begin to change your views on the project do what I’ll wager is a general belief that aid projects don’t work.

Mar 17 2014 at 9:07pm

I was thinking about the Keynes v. Hayek bouts during this interview. I wouldn’t call the podcast a debate, but I cannot classify it as an interview.

I give kudos to Russ for maintaining his composure and trying to keep it from digressing into two people talking past each other. I was hoping that Russ would stop some of the longer orations, but in the end I think standing aside was the best strategy.

David Longstreet
Mar 17 2014 at 9:13pm

Jeffery Sachs would have done himself a favor to take a breath and answer the questions instead of being defensive and talking constantly.

I believe that Professor Roberts hinted at the perfect question, “Why did markets not happen in Africa?” I think until that question is answered, we will not make progress in Africa (or elsewhere). Any aid will be short lived.

I would like to say Jeffrey Sachs is the road to hell is paved with good intentions. AND when someone is trying to help you get your point across and help you… just SHUT UP!

Mar 17 2014 at 9:26pm

Another excellent discussion. Thanks, gentlemen.

I’m pretty sure Ludwig von Mises never visited Africa, and yet I think he was on to something here:

“We do not know what course the history of Asia and Africa would have taken if these peoples had been left alone. … The achievements of Western industrialism came to them from abroad. They were ready to take advantage of the foreign capital lent to them and invested in their territories. But they were rather slow in the reception of the ideologies from which modern industrialism had sprung. Their assimilation to Western ways of life is superficial. … The contact with the West has not yet benefited these peoples because it has not yet affected their minds; it has not freed them from age-old superstitions, prejudices, and misapprehensions; it has merely altered their technological and therapeutical knowledge.” (Ludwig von Mises, Human Action)

e.g. This week on BBC news there was a brief story about how Malawian Airlines had suspended operations at the international airport in the Malawi commercial capital, Blantyre, due to potholes on the runway. Flights were rerouted and hundreds of passengers were left stranded. Sources at the airport said a contractor had left potholes un-repaired because the Department of Civil Aviation could not pay him. The airline’s parent company is the Malawian Government (51%). The rest of the shares are owned by Ethiopian Airlines, whose parent company is the Ethiopian government (100%).

Mar 17 2014 at 10:15pm

< The one at The Lancet had to be corrected because there were some mistakes made, but more importantly than the mistakes, the decrease in child mortality was actually less than the decreases in the neighboring countries where the clusters were located. Does that not discourage you about the impact of these efforts?>

J Sachs evaded that question, let me propose a answer for him. The Millennium Villages Project sought out the poorest places in Africa and attempted to make improvements in selected areas of health, education and agriculture. Improvements in other locations with better resources, transportation and economies might be expected to be better. The villages selected had been left behind for 70 years. We should be pleased they are showing any improvement. Although this is a counter factual argument it is still better than changing the subject to mosquito nets and malaria in children.

Mar 17 2014 at 10:25pm

Top down is top down whether the top is located in New Yorks or Nairobi or a town that has modern conveniences such as roads, running water, electricity, and the internet, while the down is located miles away in rural villages that don’t have running water, roads, electricity, etc. Did the local “expert” have to take a suggestion to a committee then get approval from higher HQ? The key takeaway from Ms. Munk’s podcast to me seems to be that the “local experts” were probably very good at their particular speciality, i.e. agriculture, but seemed woefully inadequate at the full spectrum of establishing a market.

Growing maize was step one, which they did well. Storing the maize was step two. Marketing it was step three. The “local experts” did not do so well with step two onward. Actually step zero is establishing whether or not maize was a desirable agricultural commodity that people would use, if it were available in quantity. If the local area market could handle 100 tons of maize then production of 1,000 tons is going to see a large percentage go to waste. No market builds up in an instant. It takes time and the project schedule didn’t seem to take that into account.

The beans fiasco was similar. The project would have done better, perhaps, in the first year if it bought all the beans that were to go into the international market and bore all the costs of getting it there while paying the normal price for the beans to the farmers. At least then the project would have gotten experience in what was involved instead of having people, who probably didn’t have to do all those things ever, do it and do it and do it. The beans part was ready made for a middle-man — someone who knew what had to be done, had the resources to ensure it was done, and made sure it was done. The farmers would have been better off even if the middle-man took a chunk of the proceeds as his profit and compensation for the services he rendered.

Ultimately, it seemed Mr. Sachs did not acknowledge that there were mishaps and mistakes made with perhaps some serious failures. The question is what were the problems and what did he and the MVP learn from them? Did it change what they thought and did they choose to apply the lessons learned? By half way through the podcast, all I think I heard was “wait until the assessment next year and you will see”. I have no doubt that Mr. Sachs means extremely well and has faith in his project. I am just not so sure that it will turn out quite as well as he hoped.

Michael Tolhurst
Mar 17 2014 at 10:57pm

I hope no one listening to this podcast ever claims that economics is boring or dull! I could feel the sweat on the back of my neck after simply as an audience member.

What I found interesting was how stridently Sachs denied the charge that he was engaged in ‘top-down’ planning. Now granted, things got a bit heated and I wasn’t clear on the precise details of how things work, but he mentioned a particular type of local finance organization (SACO) several times during the interview. I’m not sure if Dr. Roberts wants to follow up, but it may be worth investigating Sachs’s claim that he’s not involved in a ‘top-down’ project. If that’s the claim he’s so intent on rebutting, and he feels so passionately about it, maybe there’s something to it. Perhaps his project has been mischaracterized? Maybe an Econtalk episode could be interviewing one of the directors of these SACOs and looking at the nuts and bolts of Sachs’s project? (And Dr. Roberts does have a standing invitation to Africa after all!)

I hope for all the heat that at the end of the conversation there was the economist equivalent of shaking hands and saying ‘Good Game!’

Simon Cranshaw
Mar 17 2014 at 11:13pm

Russ, you could have said the same thing, and people did say the same thing, about malaria nets: ‘Why are you doing this? There’s a market out there and if people really want them, let them buy them.’ And yet more than a million kids were dying of malaria. And there was a solution, obviously, in sight. And that solution has worked.

Why wasn’t this adopted locally? As I understand it, Hayek claims local distributed knowledge is usually better than outside concentrated knowledge. This example seems to be evidence against that idea. Mosquito nets don’t appear to be something hard to understand. Why weren’t they or aren’t they enthusiastically bought by locals without a program. What would Hayek say about it?

Mat Hayashi
Mar 18 2014 at 12:02am

Russ, you are truly a class act. You handled the interview with great poise and focus—where many others would have been dragged off course by Sach’s accusations and jabs. I enjoy and always learn from your show content and interviewing manner/style.

Mar 18 2014 at 3:02am

I remember at the time when listening to the nina monk podcast that Russ pretty much ensured that Sachs would never show up on econ talk again. To my great surprise, he did and of course, exactly what I feared might happen, happened.

From the get go, I could tell Sachs was using every amount of energy to keep his composure, but only a few minutes in, he couldn’t help himself and his great anger at Russ came through in full force. It continued throughout and you could tell it was a sore spot throughout.

I should say, I do sympathize with him slightly. I think he deeply cares about helping people and was no doubt personally offended that he was hurting the very people he was trying to help. The subtly of the argument was lost the moment he heard it no doubt.

Even still, the podcast itself didn’t accomplish much in the way of educating us. It was divided in two segments – one was his answering every question with a repeat set of goals he had set out – as if he were reading off a brochure for the MVP project. And of course, the other half was spent settling scores.

I suspect another interview on this same subject might get a more circumspect set of answers to these questions, but alas, it won’t happen till 2016.

Mar 18 2014 at 3:13am

I saw the guest name in the title and thought “Well, this is going to get interesting.”

But wow. From Sachs, I was expecting at least some “Admittedly, project x didn’t work out as intended at first, and that was a hard learning experience, but we adjusted…”

But what I heard from him was “I give myself an A+ on everything! Straight A+’s on every front. I deserve credit for everything that worked, and everything did work. If it didn’t, it’s going to. Anyone who says otherwise is just creating noise, confusion, and deception.”

That made it hard NOT to believe Nina Munk, who communicated in measured tones. I started to feel that he wasn’t just trying to justify the MVP; he was trying to justify his life, as if standing before St. Peter. He will not entertain criticism of the project because he takes it as a personal attack. And I concluded:

If the MVP is about Africans, Sachs will relentlessly seek criticism, advice, input, ways to make the MVP better. On the other hand if the MVP is about Sachs, he will plug his ears and keep trampling straight ahead as long as he can say “I did it my way”.

A little humility would go a long, long way.

Mar 18 2014 at 3:33am

Russ was very patient with possibly his most belligerent guest yet.
Others above made many of my points better than I was going to, but I’d add that this interview made me feel sorry for Sachs. He sounds like a man who is fighting like mad to delay the inevitable crushing disappointment that comes with with such a public failure where people he sees as enemies will gloat and tsk-tsk his efforts without doing enough on their own to “deserve” to criticize him.

Noa Resare
Mar 18 2014 at 3:37am

Mike: I believe that the point about higher agricultural productivity not being the same as the benefits of mosquito nets has some context in an example that Nina Munch talked about in her interview.

In her anecdotal example, there was fantastic increases in productivity that brought very little benefit, because the infrastructure to properly store and bring the harvest to willing buyers was lacking. I her example the result of the experiment was a net negative. Larger yields, yes, but also a lot of frustration and possibly a net negative looking at actual benefit for the farmers.

Mar 18 2014 at 7:56am

charity-driven health improvement – maybe

data based conclusions – minimal
data collection – apparently not great

sustainable, scalable community driven solution – no

Sachs needs to own up to his failures and learn. He can still do good in his life.

Greg G
Mar 18 2014 at 8:20am

Well, that was an intense interview. I think it generated more heat than light. I don’t know how to accurately evaluate the effect of the work Jeffrey Sachs is doing in Africa and I am skeptical that any one else does either.

I certainly understand why Sachs was so offended at the suggestion Russ made in the earlier interview that Sachs was smashing people’s dreams and doing something “incredibly cruel.” That was way, way over the top.

I understand that the criticism Russ is making is that this program is “top down” but let’s remember that it does have the main aspect that Russ and other libertarians insist on for aide to the poor. No one was coerced. The entire program was based on voluntary contributions not government tax revenues. We frequently hear Russ argue that private charity is far superior to government social safety nets as a way of fighting poverty. Well, that’s what they tried here.

Yes, Sach’s would have been better served here by being less defensive and interrupting much less. Russ indicated in the original interview that his biggest problem with Sach’s is a feeling that Sach’s is claiming the high moral ground and implying that those why disagree with his methods are less interested in helping the poor. That issue should have been addressed directly.

Who cares about the poor most is an entirely different question from what methods work best to help them.

It seems obvious to me that Sach’s cares about the poor a lot more than most people (and certainly more than me). That does not make it wrong to question his methods. But it ought to be enough to keep people from suggesting that the effect of his work is “incredibly cruel.”

Suggestions of cruelty and dream smashing ought to be reserved for times when we want to question people’s motives and I don’t think Russ really intended to question Sach’s motives. I suspect (and hope) that was just a careless choice of words that was an over reaction to the perception (probably accurate) that Sach’s was claiming to have the high moral ground.

Matthew Krachey
Mar 18 2014 at 9:34am

A few things
1) I disagree with Sachs approach
2) I hope he is right, it will improve a lot of lives
3) I respect the fact that he has an idea of what will work, and is trying it, with private money. He’s not Krugman, writing about how others fail for not following his advice, he’s out trying it himself, and he will take criticism if it fails. I respect that.
4) Even if it fails, we will have data from an attempt. Some of what was done will have to provide some positive information, even if it is “don’t do that.”

Bob Dobolena
Mar 18 2014 at 10:56am

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.–Econlib Ed.]

Gabriel Rossman
Mar 18 2014 at 12:31pm

“Have you ever been to Africa? You should go!”

[5 minutes later]

“Munk only spent 6 weeks over 6 years in Africa!”

Mar 18 2014 at 12:39pm

I lived in Malawi, Africa for two years in a rural village (peace corps volunteer). I came away with more questions than answers about what was really going on in my village. I don’t think saying basically “you have no credibility to question these projects since you haven’t even been to rural africa” is a valid defense. Its so complex, you would have to live there 10+ years in the same place, speak the local language, then maybe you would have some insight on that one particular place. And a rural village in Northern Nigeria would be completely different than one in southeastern Zambia, etc. Flying in for one, two, three weeks won’t give you really any more insight most likely and may even distort your view. I saw village headman, local NGOs, many times “putting on a show” for the big bwana coming in to visit the project.

Mar 18 2014 at 12:50pm


Sachs’ blatant side step of your question at 47 min in was incredibly sad.

This man cannot answer a straight, well articulated question, if he worked for Amazon he would be fired immediately.

Mr. Econotarian
Mar 18 2014 at 1:02pm

My thoughts after finishing the podcast:

Russ, I wish you had not let him go on so much about his hurt feelings. You should have let it go and just asked for data, and also asked more about the role of the government in crushing business operations in these countries. For example, had Sachs MDV’s helped reduce or skirt regulation to achieve its goals?

Sachs is full of hubris. It is tough for me to believe any of the facts he may provide because he is so defensive about himself. I wouldn’t trust him with $1 of my investment. He seems to care more about his own image and reputation than actual results. Maybe he is just overly emotional (which sub-Saharan Africa’s troubles could do to you), but he does a disservice to his own project by not just sticking to the data.

Also he wants to conflate two very different things. Point medical interventions in the developing world such as polio eradication and bed nets are one thing. You can often shame a government into letting you in and doing your work (with the notable exception of northwest Pakistan, where the de-facto Taliban government of some provinces kill Polio eradication workers).

Sustained general economic development is quite a different thing. It has a far greater record of abject failure, especially in Africa, compared with point medical interventions. There are some mild economic effects of medical interventions, but a medical intervention won’t help you if your government makes making a living legally difficult. Same thing with schooling – useless with an anti-free market government.

I wish the question was asked, why were these people so poor before the MDV effort? Was it:

1) They were too stupid to know about good seeds & fertilizer – doubt it.

2) They were too stupid to get a loan – doubt it – likely the banking sector is over-regulated.

The first legal micro finance entities were legalized in 1996 in Ethiopia, but even today only 30 MFIs are licensed by the National Bank of Ethiopia and only meet 10%-15% of the micro finance need. The current regulatory framework requires micro finance institutions to be formed as share companies held only by Ethiopian nationals [although shareholders are not truly owners in the Western concept of private property]. Foreign nationals are not allowed to invest in the financial sector, including the micro finance business. The two largest MFIs in Ethiopia are – get ready for this – mainly owned by regional governments. One of problems faced by Ethiopian MFIs during licensing process is that it is difficult for new MFIs to fulfill the arcane requirements for their general manager stipulated by the National Bank of Ethiopia.

There is also no clear regulatory framework when commercial banks are interested to offer micro finance products. Similarly, there is no clear way to upgrade an MFI to a commercial bank, limiting the upside of any investment in an MFI. There is no proper regulatory and legal support such as property right law especially for registering movable assets of micro and small enterprise. This has restricted MFIs to be involved in collateral based lending.

Also some MFIs are reporting that some NGO’s and government institutions are involved in subsidized lending activities and hence the practice is hampering the performance of regulated micro finance sector. Are the efforts of the MDV contributing to this problem?

Micro finance in Ethiopia could benefit from the involvement of international commercial banks [currently illegal] which bring exposure in both financial and experience terms. The industry should be allowed to freely borrow and to raise equity capital by selling true equity shares.

By the way, SACCO is the acronym for Savings And Credit Co-operative, which are basically small credit unions. There are more SACCOs than MFIs in Ethiopia, but SACCOs have challenges scaling up because of their more limited capabilities. SACCO assets must be held by Commercial Banks, there is no legal way to establish a cooperative bank, for example. And SACOOs can’t offer a variety of different banking products like an MFI or Commercial Bank can.

My dogs could get credit cards in the US in the early 2000’s. Micro finance is a symptom of an over-regulated banking sector, not the answer to ending poverty.

3) Are the farmers to dumb to improve their soil? Doubt it. The Ethiopian government owns the land. Farmers have no legal security of land tenure, allowing for forced evictions against politically weak minorities such as the Gambella people.

Russ, the poor people in Ethiopia are poor because of the a government that regulates too much, is too corrupt (ranked 111 out of 177 on Transparency International’s corruption score), and does not believe strongly in the registration & rights of private property. Even 100 Jeff Sachs can’t do much under those situations.

Mar 18 2014 at 1:15pm

Why not try capitalism? That seems to have worked.

I’d be interested to know more details about the projects. How much of the money goes into mosquito nets, medical equipment, digital soil mapping, etc.?

Are there any institutional reforms that take place? Are property rights more secure? Will they be when the project is over? What is the cultural norm re: property rights in these areas?

Is entrepreneurship encouraged? How?

Who are the local experts? Do they have skin in the game?

Sachs reminds me of CEOs and politicians who never concede failure. Sometimes I find that admirable b/c they push through against the odds and prove the naysayers wrong. Sometimes, that just leads to stubborn repetition of past mistakes.

If Sachs is using private money — I say have at it. He isn’t forcing anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. Eventually it’ll be up to his donors to decide if his efforts are worthwhile.

Mar 18 2014 at 1:18pm

I’ve been listening to EconTalk from the very beginning, and I believe that Russ has cut down greatly on his tendency to “pile on” with hyperbolic criticisms of people he isn’t currently talking to.

And after hearing this episode, I realized that a good portion of the runtime was devoted to one of these criticisms. When Russ previously made the “smashed the dreams” statement, it clearly struck a nerve with Dr. Sachs. Russ’ backpedaling at the end of this episode, as if his original statement was just some sort of generalization…not directly commenting on the specific actions of a specific person in a specific situation…that was weak.

At the very least, he could have acknowledged that Dr. Sachs’ interpretation of that statement was valid. Instead, he doubled down and stood behind his manufactured truism. And that was not one of the stronger moments of this podcast.

I don’t know much about Dr. Sachs’ efforts or his personality, but I think this discussion ended on a false (and sour) note: time will not necessarily determine whether or not any side of this argument is “right”. Maybe Dr. Sachs fails despite using methods that were sound. Maybe he succeeds despite all of the criticisms being valid. Maybe bed nets are a stupid waste of time. Maybe they were the first step toward a better way and larger truth.

Humility was in short supply in this episode, but what are we to expect when it was germinated from the host and a previous guest riffing on someone who was not in the room?

Richard Hood
Mar 18 2014 at 1:31pm

I have tremendous admiration for Jeff Sachs and his work on trying to make a difference in Africa. His approach is so common sense that I just cannot understand the criticism. He did sound defensive at times, but I don’t blame him. Those who criticize do not seem to have any better solution other than do to nothing – which is not a solution – or if they do, they are not making it happen. Jeff is making things happen.

His efforts are all really “no brainers”. Of course giving a farmer seed and fertilizer will help lift up that farmer so he has a surplus to sell. Of course infrastructure is needed to get that surplus to market. Of course solving the food problem is the first step to industrialization, freeing up labor to build things, not just to farm. India is case in point.

And the biggest “of course” of all is that this would not just happen on its own – it does require an intervention to get the market going – especially in a continent that is so poor and has so little capitol.

Why the criticism of the “integrated” approach, when in fact that is the only thing that will work (e.g. if you grow more food, but no road to get it to market…)? I don’t get it.

Is it his “arrogance? …if so, get over it. A lot of people who have done great things in the world are arrogant. I don’t know if Jeff is arrogant – I don’t care, and neither do the people he is helping in Africa.

Jeff keep doing what you are doing. You are right. You are a Saint.

George Pope
Mar 18 2014 at 1:39pm

Professor Sachs doth protest too much, methinks.

Mar 18 2014 at 3:05pm

@Richard Hood

After decades of foreign intervention and aid, I would argue “doing nothing” is a valid solution. It might not be the correct one, but since nothing else has worked either, it is certainly a possibility as China has shown.

Mar 18 2014 at 3:53pm

Second comment.

I have read Professor Folsom’s book, Myth of the Robber Barons and have thought that the actions of James Hill and the Great Northern railroad (I think that was it) that he built. According to Folsom, Hill sought to attract people to settle near his railroad, start farms, even brought in cattle (for free?) to give to the farmers, and did agricultural experiments, in order to have something to ship on his railroad and was quite successful in doing that.

The point being that while the MVP sought to help very poor villages and improve their prospects, which was all to the good, it seemed that it was not a really integrated solution (not that the MVP should have built a railroad) but, again referring to Ms. Munk’s observations, having a lot of produce or product to sell means little when it is very difficult to get it to market.

Mosquito nets, water pumps, traveling medics work well at reducing disease, a transportation network is not really needed. Maize or beans, in excess of immediate local needs, as a bulky item, is a waste if it can’t get to (or it is very difficult to move) where there is demand for it.

Mar 18 2014 at 6:42pm

Long time listener, first time poster.

Russ, thank you so much for this amazing podcast, and all the work that you do as a patient economics educator. I applaud you for standing your ground and allowing Dr. Sachs to continue to talk around all of your questions. At the end, he’s just telling stories.

Mar 18 2014 at 7:25pm

[Comment removed for rudeness. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.–Econlib Ed.]

Mar 18 2014 at 8:24pm

Jeff Sachs is basically the economics version of Chuck Norris: every experiment he does is a success.

1. If the experimental group does better than the control group, this proves that his idea works.

2. If the experimental doesn’t do better than the control group, this proves that the control group was so inspired by his idea that they went along with it too.

Bill Haley
Mar 18 2014 at 8:33pm

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for policy violation. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.–Econlib Ed.]

Michael Byrnes
Mar 18 2014 at 9:14pm

There is a very wide gap between outstanding success and abject, “better if it had never been tried” failure.

I highly doubt that this program will turn out to be the tremendous success that Sachs suggests it will be. But even a relatively minor success might be enough to justify the whole program, particularly if it can be learned from.

Mar 19 2014 at 7:08am

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Mar 19 2014 at 8:17am


I am a country director of a large NGO implementing Global Fund activities, specifically for Malaria and sit on the Global Fund Country Coordination Committee for a developing country.

I just wanted to say that even though Sachs attempted to imply or insist you did not understand health or development or things on the ground, you were hitting the mark 9 time out of 10 with your points and questions. Your points are legitimate especially on the topic of what is the comparative benefit of the Millennium Villages versus other similarly costed interventions. Bednets are wonderfull (and by the way Sachs was completely misconstruing their success; it was the handing out of bednets [that is fairly cheap and we know from the field ineffective on its own], it was the billions of dollars in Behaviour Change Communication and training and capacity building of village volunteers, Provincial Health Departments, and ministries of health that made that eventually work), but if the Villages impacts are coming from just those interventions that are already being done by Global Fund at a much lower cost [our beneficiaries usually run at about US$14 per person for a 3-year intervention for malaria), then its legitimate to ask if basically the rest is useless; which went unanswered.

Finally, the last segment about determining success made my jaw drop. Assuming Sachs was as influential as he says in the forming of Global Fund, he would undoubtedly be familiar with the extreme indicator and performance structures of Global Fund that set out specific targets and objectives with bright-line indicators to judge success and failure, with performance against those indicated EVERY year (not at the end of effort) for every disease grant for every country. By saying that success will be measured simply by the willingness of governments to support it (by the way, recipient countries will often support anything as long as it is funded by donors) leads me to think that either this was not planned out in the rigorous manner most other institutional donor projects such as by Global fund are, or else (which we see in the field all the time) their performance against their specified internal indicators are bad so they are looking for any alternative means to justify what they have already done.

I could rant on for a long time on this as these issues of “experts” run their theory in the field is a common theme in this sector. At the end of the day it is usually the development programmatic practitioners who are the gate keeps filtering the experts’ brillance, the donor’s politics and the communities needs to get the impacts through the communities themselves, creative destruction and market forces. What I think made Sacs fail was he could find lots of experts (both local and international) but he didn’t understand he needed practitioners. In a health analogy, what LDCs need are not anatomy and pharmacology professors but simple experienced medical doctors.

And from your questions, which hit all these points, I think you already understand that.



Rob Wiblin
Mar 19 2014 at 11:05am

I thought Sachs raised a lot of reasonable defences (e.g. the control groups were contaminated, people in these places aren’t informed about agricultural productivity techniques), but they were diluted by verbose responses that didn’t make his case any more persuasive.

But one point on which I definitely side with Sachs is the ‘smashing dreams’ claim. I cringed when I heard Russ make that comment in the original interview. It is unreasonable hyperbole to imply that Sachs was ‘doing one of the most cruel things’, rather than risking a moderately bad unintended consequence.

Even if Sachs had gotten these people’s hopes up purely for the sake of doing that, without any actual belief that the program would improve their quality of life, would it cause harm overall? They would experience several years of raised spirits and energy at the hope for a better life, and then some period of disappointment as their hopes don’t pan out. Would the disappointment outweigh the hope? I don’t think anyone can confidently say. People buy lottery tickets for the pleasure of anticipating an improbable lucky break, and constantly choose to form positive delusions to keep themselves motivated through adversity. Stoking that can scarcely be called ‘one of the most cruel things’. It is no surprise that Sachs bristled at this comment.

I also think the bar has been set unreasonably high for the project to be judged a success in this conversation. Apparently it has to totally transform these villages, and clearly exceed the effectiveness of all other aid approaches. That would be nice, but is necessarily unlikely. The most likely outcome is what we have seen elsewhere: major improvements in health, but only modest economic growth. If the Millenium Villages can do incrementally better on their modest budget it’s a step forward that’s worth learning from, even if they can’t work miracles.

Mar 19 2014 at 12:04pm

[Comment removed for rudeness.–Econlib Ed.]

Mar 19 2014 at 12:28pm

Just to provide some context (and, as Prof Roberts says, transcripts are wonderful things), here’s the original, apparently offensive (to some commenters, too) quote:

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.

Now, there are at least two responses to something like this: you could respond angrily, citing your hurt feelings but ignoring the assertions; or you could refute it by providing evidence that the comment was factually wrong (note: not hurtful, or painful, or awkward, or embarrassing, but factually wrong). If Sachs did that, I missed it, and shame on me.

But then that’s no different from the reception Mr Sachs gave Ms Munk’s assertions: don’t disprove them, go on the offensive instead.

Jonathan Sleeper
Mar 19 2014 at 2:17pm

I am retired from the U.S. Agency for International Development and lived & worked in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Before that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. Nothing I heard in the interview with Jeffery Sachs contradicted the basic thesis of Nina Munk’s interview, nor did it contradict Dr. Russel’s “smashing dreams” comment. The main problem with these integrated approaches, which unfortunately was not discussed as much as I thought it should be in the interview with Dr. Sachs, is the lack of sustainability. Local governments simply lack the institutional, technical & budgetary ability to follow through with these programs once the experts from the capital (who are not “local expertise” as Sachs claimed) drive away in their white SUVs. I have seen it happen over and over again. So the donors (or donor-funded NGOs) end up providing outside funding for needed health & social welfare services which local governments cannot provide. Is that the way for African countries to achieve sustainable economic growth?

Mar 19 2014 at 2:29pm

Sachs is clearly in the unfortunate position of having to be both an economist, and a politician for the MVP. It is understandable that admitting the failures of the MVP would leave the project open to attack and reduce funding, however on an economics podcast with what seem like his standard talking points were not overtly convincing.

It is a bit astonishing that someone so experienced in selling a project to his audience, that Sachs did not prepare for this podcast with economic and generally quantitative rebuttals to his critics. Talking to Russ was an opportunity to lay out a clear analysis with someone receptive to logic, however the entire argument was focused on a defensive sentiment that anything is “better than nothing”.

Mar 19 2014 at 4:30pm

I enjoyed the first interview with Jeff Sachs because during the 2nd half, Jeff sounded like an economist. He and Russ came to points of agreement and he was critical of bailouts and big budget deficits. In this interview Jeff and Russ never reached common ground. They’re so wide apart philosophically that they talked at cross purposes. Jeff sounded like a propagandist or a party apparatchik rather than a rational economist. You’d think a 15-year program that’s about to wrap up would have had figures by now to show whether it’s working.

There’s nothing at fault with the quote which caused Jeff so much consternation. The question whether dreams were smashed was never settled. According to Nina Munk, the villagers were worse off than before Jeff’s intervention. Jeff never addressed the villagers’ conditions directly. Instead, he kept lauding mosquito nets and improved healthcare in Africa as a whole. Of course, he didn’t set out to smash dreams, but we need to know the facts on the ground. Would it be so hard to conduct a survey and ask the villagers “are you better off today than 4 years ago”?

A couple of commentators say that if only private donations were involved, then it doesn’t matter if the program failed. When Jeff was enumerating the cost of the program, he did say government funding was part of the aid package. Even if private money paid for the whole program, failure matters if it means an indigenous way of life was disrupted and independence was replaced with dependence.

At several points during the program, I wanted Russ to ask Jeff what he thought of Hayek or if he’d studied Hayek. Jeff thrives in big institutions and seems a firm believer in doing things for people and to people instead of empowering people to fend for themselves.

I’ve attended Jeff’s lecture in person. He’s a fantastic speaker and oozes charisma. He comes across very differently in these podcasts. It’s rather disappointing that he relied so much on generalities in this one.

Mar 19 2014 at 6:13pm

Just a few ideas to consider:

1. Is the value of a charitable act limited to the quality of data it can produce to justify its existence?

2. It seems many of these podcasts focus on the negative outcomes of unintended consequences. In essence, humans are too limited to predict what will occur. Are these unintended consequences more often negative?

3. While the host argues that markets cannot be created, does not our understanding that in civilizations markets automatically develop justify our work to create them? Is Sachs laying the foundation for markets by creating at least the seeds of potential civilizations?

I agree that Sachs is treading a dangerous line: working to develop fragile societies, but in his attempt he is making a wager on human potential. Risky yes, but what more does this region have to hope for? If not Sachs then someone will start it. Why wait?

Mar 19 2014 at 10:06pm

(Partially in response to Jim)

After reading the full quote in context, I think that Russ comes off looking even worse.

First, the hyperbole:
The “cruelest thing in the world?”

Off the top of my head, there’s slavery, sex slavery, turning small children into soldiers, gifts of smallpox-ridden blankets, genocide, and any combination of horrors that have actually erased entire cultures from the Earth.

At no point does “misguided or inefficient foreign aid programs” come close to “the cruelest thing in the world.” Even worse, this is a discussion of Africa, where there’s a history of the cruelest things in the world actually happening in recent memory.

Next, an unsupported claim (which is also rather hyperbolic):
>>”to take that dream, which every human being has of a better life, especially for their children, and to smash it”<< So the idea here is that MVP isn't just giving people false hope (that their aid project will work), but it's actually causing the native Africans to give up on all possibilities of a better life in the future. This isn't about poverty rates anymore...this claim is saying that these people no longer believe that life can get better, and their dreams were smashed by MVP. Those statements were hyperbolic bluster, and they have no place in genuine discussion about these issues. Russ admitted that he had no evidence that his statement was truthful. But several of the comments here (not just Jim's) seem to lay the burden on Dr. Sachs to give proof that MVP isn't "the cruelest thing in the world". That, unless there's readily available factual evidence that these people still dream of a better life for their children, Russ's assertion somehow becomes valid. Is it hubris that leads Dr. Sachs to run his program the way he does? I don't think so, but there are some who do. I think it's obvious that he believes to be right, but I don't think it's obvious that his beliefs are the result of his position of power or that they've caused him to become untethered from reality. Is it hubris that caused Russ to make (and stand by) his statement about "the cruelest thing in the world"? When so many commenters give him a quick and easy pass on statements like this, it's not surprising that they come to the surface. It's disappointing that they are allowed to poison the discussion.

Russ Roberts
Mar 20 2014 at 8:47am

Jerm (and others),

I did not admit that I had no evidence for the statement about dream-smashing. I have no direct, personal evidence.

I tried to make the point that the statement was based on Nina Munk’s book and the reporting that stands behind her book. She tells a very depressing story based on that reporting. She may be wrong of course, or biased. But it’s not irrelevant.

I accept your point that “cruelest” is hyperbole. Yes, there are many crueler things. But I encourage you to read Nina Munk’s book. And I encourage Jeffrey Sachs to find better ways to make the case for what he has accomplished.

Matthew Barton
Mar 20 2014 at 9:07am

I’ve thought more about Russ’ comment about the “cruelest thing in the world”, and I have to say that the more carefully it is considered, the more justified, I believe, he was in making it…

Sachs’ efforts are best seen as charity that aspires to something that charity cannot accomplish… He can do enormous good for many, many individual people… And he can reduce the suffering that many endure… But I fear that his aspiration for the MVP is to secure a level of enduring prosperity that comes about only through the emergence and organic growth of an extended order based on labor specialization and freedom of contract…

No matter how sophisticated the analysis, plans, resource allocation, monitoring, and so forth of the MVP, it simply cannot create the myriad social relationships and exchanges of value that characterize the extended order of a market society… I think the promises Sachs makes for the MVP are fulfilled only by this emergent market order (which, of course, cannot emerge in an environment where the rule of law, secure property rights, and individual liberty are tenuous at best), can never be achieved by the charitable activities – no matter how well thought out – of the MVP…

This is, I think, what is at the heart of Russ’ comment – and I would agree that it is indeed cruel to suggest to these poor, suffering people that the charity of the MVP will be able to create conditions that come about only in a modern, civil, free-market society…

Matthew Merrell
Mar 20 2014 at 1:57pm

One of the most tense (for me) and well managed interviews. Russ handled Jeffrey Sachs very well despite Sachs’ need to feel very defensive. It seems obvious for me that Sachs takes his project very personally. I think Sachs even relaxed a little towards the end when he realized that Russ was not trying to attack him personally but was genuinely curious and concerned if MVP could work, if for anything, the sake of those poor folks in the middle of it all.

Gabriel Demombynes
Mar 20 2014 at 2:08pm

This is a very good discussion. For those interested in looking at these issues further, I recommend this web page which has a number of links about the debate generated by my work with Michael Clemens on the Millennium Villages evaluation:

The working paper version of our first paper includes a review of the longer history of integrated rural development programs:

Mar 20 2014 at 4:13pm

Unique discussion, I think Jeffrey Sach’s was justifiably defensive, given his treatment in the Munk interview. I am a fan of Russ’s and align with his worldview, yet we have to admit that while valid points were made, the tone of the interview wasn’t neutral.
The issue of measurement and accountability for the project is tricky. It seems common sense that we should want to know for sure whether the programs work or not, if not how are you going to keep throwing good money after bad. The issue I see is whether this is KNOWABLE in a straightforward sense, and if it’s not KNOWABLE in a scientific, statistical sense does this mean Sach’s shouldn’t try it? Are there other feedback mechanisms of his entrepreneurial effort, that will tend to amplify or dampen support for his projects that don’t have to be statistical analysis, something similar to profits in markets?
Because of the uncertainty, I would ultimately hope these kinds of efforts continue in a voluntary basis, and hopefully the court of public opinion will decide whether it’s worth it or not.

Shawn Eng
Mar 20 2014 at 8:49pm

Perhaps some of the dreams that were smashed were those of the companies that depended on a starving and pacified populace to stay away from their mineral extraction interests. Or perhaps if a village was self-reliant on health, sanitation and electricity, they wouldn’t need go into debt to bring in foreign utilities or pay royalties to pharmaceutical companies. It is right of every nation to determine its own destiny without the meddling of crony corporations.

Mort Dubois
Mar 20 2014 at 9:21pm

I read all the comments to this episode – there were 50 or so up at the time – and then listened to the podcast. Based on the consensus of commenters, I expected to hear a grandiose, self deluded buffoon. Instead I heard reasonable responses to questions, and a plea to let the project come to completion before judgement. And Russ’s defense of his “cruelty” statement was embarrassing.

I’m glad that Russ admitted he had a bias going into the pair of podcasts. I just wish that he had put Nina Munk under the same scrutiny as he did Sacks. After all, the criticisms leveled at Sacks – that he took private money to advance his own agenda, that his assertions aren’t backed by data, that he has a personal interest in putting his experience in the best possible light and, that he ignores criticism – apply equally to Munk. She is a professional journalist who has written a book that she wants to sell. She needs it to be interesting. She has shaped her narrative to tell the story of a Flawed Leader, a trope that has been around since the Iliad. She states (from the transcript) that “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.” If she stopped there it would be a short book. Her further assertions are entirely anecdotal. She did not directly answer the question of how much time she had spent in Africa. She did not quantify the number of villages she had seen or not seen. But she was not subject to the same level of scrutiny that was then put to Sacks.

Since we only have these two episodes to go by, I remain unconvinced by either argument. But Sacks is taking measurements and will presumably make the results public in 2016. Is it so difficult to wait until the project is complete to pass judgement?

Paul G. Silva
Mar 20 2014 at 9:24pm

I applaud Russ for taking on the interview. The risk was high, the apparent upside low. He conducted the interview with the civil style I have come to expect and respect from EconTalk. Mr. Sachs certainly raised some points that gave me pause, but in the end I wish he would have engaged Russ’s questions directly.

We all want to make the world a better place, but wishing is not enough. We need objective metrics to prove we are doing the work as best as we can, otherwise we are engaging in self-entertainment theater. I applaud Russ for asking the tough questions on HOW we can measure and know if MVP is succeeding or not.

Paul G. Silva
Mar 20 2014 at 9:30pm

This interview made me think… if my work were being reviewed by Russ Roberts, could I defend it any better than Mr. Sachs?”

I’m passionate about helping the entrepreneurial ecosystem of my part of the country grow. Many aspects of the task do not immediately offer good metrics. Many aspects take a long time. There are many, many variables so teasing out the impact off my efforts is not easy.

But this interview reminds me that even if it isn’t easy, it IS SO IMPORTANT. How can I measure progress in a meaningful way? I bet that is a question many of us lovers of EconTalk could profit from pondering more. I know I will!

Russ Roberts
Mar 21 2014 at 10:02am

Mort Dubois,

Fair points, mostly.

Two comments.

I did not mean to imply that Sachs should be criticized for taking private money. Not sure where that comes from–maybe I should have been clearer.

On the issue of waiting until the project ends to evaluate it, Sachs and his group have celebrated the results of their project well in advance of 2016. The two peer-reviewed papers that I know of were both challenged and found to be flawed. The key claim of the paper at The Lancet–that child mortality in the Millennium villages had improved three times more quickly than the nations they were in–had to be withdrawn. It actually turned out that the villages performed more poorly than the nations they were in. If you are interested in these issues, go to the page highlighted above by Gabriel Demombynes and look at the links related to AJCN and The Lancet.

Maybe the results will look better in 2016. We’ll see.

Bryce Christensen
Mar 21 2014 at 12:16pm

Mr. Sachs is an a precarious position during public, recorded exchanges of this type. As leader and fundraiser, admitting failure could cause a decrease in support by donors and credibility among people working on the project. As an economist, refusal to admit failures causes a loss of credibility. Between the two, he chose to lose face as an economist and must hope it doesn’t diminish his ability to lead and raise money for the cause.

Mr. Sachs faces a problem common to many modern economists: one who becomes a participant in policy suddenly gains large incentives to focus on what policy changes that work and large incentives to gloss over what has not worked. And that’s just to sleep at night; those incentives are even stronger in public interviews.

Bryce Christensen
Mar 21 2014 at 3:08pm

What impact will this episode have on choosing future guests? Does it make you consider alternatives to live interviews for rebuttals (prerecorded statements, perhaps, as written statements would miss a large swath of listeners)? Mr. Sachs likely would have served his own defense and his cause better by laying out what was going right in such a rebuttal much better than he was served speaking to a host that he viewed as hostile.

Nathan Beckmann
Mar 21 2014 at 5:43pm

This interview was testy and difficult to follow at times, but I’m glad it happened. Sachs offered some good points that influenced my opinion after the Munk episode. I now believe that Russ was too quick to condemn Sachs and the MVP in the Munk episode.

Sachs also convinced me in this episode that some interventions of the sort he’s done in the past and present — bed nets, for example — are necessary. His criticism that if the skeptics had their way, nothing would ever happen is on point. We’ve given the poorest in Africa plenty of time to create wealth in bottom-up fashion, and it isn’t happening. There is basically a bootstrapping problem in the poorest places in the world.

I wish Sachs was more open to independent criticism and measurement, however. It could be done by disinterested parties. But the defensiveness on this count is bothersome. Maybe he has personal experience with skeptics blocking ideas that proved valuable, and he has learned to be skeptical of skepticism. But it leaves many questions unanswered.

Mar 21 2014 at 5:51pm

I’m an avid listener of Econtalk and usually agree with Russ’ skeptical approach, which appears to be founded in humility about the limits of our knowledge about how the world and economic systems really work. However, in this case, the skepticism strikes me as misplaced and (ironically) its own form of hubris.

The first reason for this is a part of the “smashed the dreams” quote that has been overlooked – the lead in:

“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.”

Now that’s hubris! I don’t have to read the book because I already know how this is going to go. To me, this is what Sachs was reacting to – the assumption that the project must not be working and the confirmation bias that goes along with that. It must be incredibly frustrating for a person who obviously cares as much as he does to be Monday Morning Quarterbacked by people who, in his view, don’t have all the facts and gravitate toward arguments, like Nina Munk’s, that confirm their own pre-conceived skepticism.

My second issue with this discussion relates to control groups and measurements. If this project was an economics experiment where the goal is to prove or disprove the null hypothesis, then the criticisms about control groups and measurement problems would be totally appropriate. However, it sounds like the goal is to improve the real world situation on the ground, in multiple countries, involving millions of people, with numerous cultural, economic and political idiosyncrasies. There are almost always going to be measurement and control group problems in such circumstances.

Every person and institution in the world makes investment decisions in environments without perfect measurements and controls. Does Apple know with precision the ROI of adding Siri to the iphone, as distinguished from the form factor, the quality of its app store, or the unemployment rate? Did I sell my house for a profit because I repainted it, or was it the staging, the advertising, or the timing of placing it on the market?

To the extent Sachs is making a scientific claim about his project, the measurement and control criticism is valid. But to the extent such criticisms are used to critique whether the project is worthy of investment at all I think a reality check is in order. The normal state of things is to not have perfect information. And we usually make investment decisions anyway.

Greg McIsaac
Mar 21 2014 at 8:02pm

I’d like to see Dr. Roberts’ evidence for smashed dreams. I think the claim of smashed dreams may be equally hyperbolic to the claim of being the cruelest thing.

Most people learn from an early age that disappointments and unfulfilled promises are part of what happens in life. Such events are opportunities for reflection and learning how to do better next time around. But allowing these disappointments to smash our dreams is really our own doing, by investing too much of our dreams in other people (e.g., Jeffery Sachs) or other factors beyond our control. Is Jeffery Sachs really responsible for other people’s dreams, smashed or otherwise?

There has been a lot of good criticism of Dr. Sachs and MDVs, but I have not seen or heard solid, systematic evidence of smashed dreams for which Dr. Sachs and MDV are responsible. If such evidence exists, I’d like to see it.

Thomas A. Coss
Mar 22 2014 at 4:02pm


Don’t we have a duty to get this right? I very much enjoyed this conversation with Jeffery Sachs as a meaningful contribution to challenging what we think we know about what is best for other people.

No one doubts the value of reducing Malaria or other such diseases, that’s a given, still it doesn’t stop there and nor can we. Your vibrant discussion underscored to me the importance of completing the job completely, and understanding what that means. Thanks, //tom

Mar 22 2014 at 6:32pm

I don’t think “smashed dreams” would be an entirely unfair description of the history of intervention based development. I think it would be difficult to look at development and be terribly proud over its result so far. Certainly the task at hand is titanic, and there have been some good results, but as a whole the result does not seem as good as many would have hoped. It seems so many experts have gone to Africa telling the people there they had outsmarted Africa’s problems and would be their savior, but have ultimately failed. While I certainly do not blame them for trying, it seems odd how confident some intellectuals can be that they have the answer. You would think given the current state of the poor in Africa, experts would be more humble and cautious in trumpeting their approach when all others have largely failed to cure what ails the continent. A lot of what is happening with Malaria and such seems quite promising, but I don’t think history has paved a road that allows for intellectuals like Sachs to ask us to blindly follow them without question. To ask to blindly follow and then let the people of Africa down time and time again seems like smashed dreams to me, as well intentioned as their actions might be.

Kevin English
Mar 22 2014 at 8:41pm

I think problems facing the “rural poor” are very different from those the Millennium Project is trying to solve. I do not know how they created these goals while ignoring problems of violence, corruption, racism and government policies that keep people poor.

I would encourage Mr Sachs to watch a movie like “The Act of Killing” or to read up on the current violence in Mexico. How can healthy competitive economies develop when criminals infiltrate every level of government and act with impunity using violence to extort the people?

On a side note, I think a lot of the health issues are more complex than Mr. Sachs is letting on. I recently learned from a retired doctor who had been volunteering in Nicaragua that smoke inhalation from indoor cooking fires kills more people than malaria (feel free to Google to confirm). I am surprised this is never mentioned…

Russ Roberts
Mar 22 2014 at 8:58pm


You misunderstood my remark about not having to read Nina Munk’s book. I knew how it was going to turn out because I had seen reviews of it. That’s all. Maybe someday someone will write an account that is positive about the Millennium Villages Project. It’s possible and I’ll be happy to read it.

Having said that, we all have biases. I am open about mine and you should take what I say (and what everyone says, including Jeffrey Sachs) with many grains of salt.

Mort Dubois
Mar 22 2014 at 11:06pm

Russ: thank you for responding. I may not have been clear – I didn’t say that you criticized Sacks for taking private money, it’s more that you didn’t examine the motives that Munk might have, after taking private money to produce a book, to manufacture a more interesting or coherent tale than the facts might otherwise merit.

In my day job, I run a small factory that I founded many years ago. And as a part time job, I write about that experience for the New York Times. So I have sympathy for both Sacks, as a social entrepreneur, and Munk, who has contracted to write a book. Both are dealing with a messy set of facts and using them to make up a story. They need to shape their tale to satisfy their “customers”, either donors and supporters, or publishers and readers. My own sympathy lies with Sacks, as he has the more difficult job. It’s simply a much harder task to start a large enterprise from nothing, and to enlist the support of governments, volunteers, employees, and donors, than it is to take potshots from the sidelines.

That said, I think that these two episodes, and your reaction to them, shows why I admire your program. You have biases, and you occasionally succumb to them, as in your cruelty remark. But you also then acknowledge them, and do your best to make sure that they don’t obscure the opposing viewpoint. Congratulations on producing what is consistently the most intelligent, challenging, and enjoyable hour in any media.

Greg G
Mar 23 2014 at 7:36am

Well said Mort.

Kailer Mullet
Mar 24 2014 at 9:26pm

You held your composure very well in this episode, despite all of Sachs’ baiting. This is why you’re such a good interviewer, and why econtalk is such a great product. You let the guest be the centerpiece of the episode, and even when you challenge the guest it’s with the goal of helping him/her state his/her case more clearly.

Mar 25 2014 at 10:30am

This was painful to listen to at times. Great job, Russ. You’re a true scholar and a shining example for any debater of any political persuasion.

What I found especially ironic is that Sachs, in his attack on Russ’ comment, actually proved him right by appealing to emotions and trying to take the moral high ground (“what about the children that now have access to medicine?” etc).

Mar 26 2014 at 5:20pm

Very good episode. It was a nice followup to the Nina Munk interview.

I found the last part of the interview the most interesting. In particular when Russ asked, “Who will evaluate the efficacy of these projects?” I half expected Sachs to answer tongue-in-cheek, “We have experts for that.” But I liked Sachs’ answer even better: “the market test.” Governments are adopting his ideas and solutions. Makes perfect sense.

In this way I suppose we can measure the success of our own health care market by pointing to the passage of the Affordable Care Act and showing that it has created an Independent Payment Advisory Board of experts. Problem solved. The market has spoken.

I think a true market test might be to examine whether or not private investment capital (not government funds, not charitable donations) is flowing into these regions and examine the return on investment. If these regions of Africa are sustainably growing at a faster pace than the rest of the world, I’m sure private investment will have no problem finding it’s way there. But I’m no economist, so that’s probably just silly.

Mar 27 2014 at 4:07am

The comment above this and Sachs’ assertion that governments’ interest constitute a “market test” makes me think that we need to be more careful distinguishing between “free markets” as a concept and mere “market mechanisms” (which could even include interactions between different governments). Anything in the context in the latter needn’t really be a market test, I would assert.

Mar 27 2014 at 12:00pm

Brilliant podcast! I look forward to the episode in 2016, maybe as an EconTalk with both Munk and Sachs?

A. Certain
Mar 27 2014 at 12:16pm

This was one of the most frustrating Econtalks I have listened to. Dr. Sachs doesn’t interact like most of your guests, who consider a question and try to answer it. The interview seemed more like one of a politician on Meet the Press: say some words that seem like they are related and have content but ultimately are about shifting the conversation towards good-sounding anecdotes.

The frustrating thing for me as somebody who feels deeply for the plight of the desperately poor is that I think he should be proud of what he is doing – mistakes and all. When he answered the question about why just doing the simple, cheap things such as mosquito nets isn’t better than the integrative approach he’s selling, I think he missed the mark. Were I (God forbid) running the project, I would have drawn an analogy to a venture fund. If a venture fund puts $100,000 into 100 start-ups and 99 go bust but one returns $100,000,000, everybody sees that the one success provides more value to the economy than the 99 failures, because successes get replicated and failures (usually) don’t.

I would think of the Millennium Villages in a similar context. I would have answered that the project is experimenting with <1% of the population. The things that turn out to be cost-effective, like mosquito nets are taken up and replicated. Others may turn out to be ideas that seemed good but didn’t work out. But even if 99% of the ideas end up not working out, we’re only spent the money for <1% of the population figuring it out and the 1% that is effective will get replicated everywhere.

I also think that he is right that while in retrospect mosquito nets are an obviously cost-effective and important intervention, beforehand people were skeptical (and I’d still like to understand the difference in perspective that Dr. Sachs has from Sonia Shah – maybe because when coming out of the Millennium Project it was indeed adopted voluntarily by the local governments rather than being imposed from the outside). So I think experimental places where people can see something working rather than just debating theories are important.

Another challenge made on the show was that the individuals didn’t get to make all the decisions (e.g. which seeds to plant), and that reduced the effectiveness of the decision making. But let’s not forget that individuals also make lots of mistakes, even with their special knowledge of time and place. We’re so focused on not making mistakes that we lose sight of the fact that most new things end up being mistakes, and the focus needs to be on trying lots of things on smaller scale and replicating what works.

We’re so used to debating big aid efforts that target a whole country, where the cost of failure is high. This effort seems to be a great response to that problem. Dr. Sachs, unfortunately, seems to need to convince the world that the ideas are right and that he personally should get the credit (how often did he answer a question by telling you how hard it was for him to convince somebody of this or that?).

[html problems corrected, specifically problems with less-than symbols that caused the rest of the comment to not be displayed.–Econlib Ed.]

Mar 29 2014 at 3:22am

Really glad that you took the opportunity to bring Sachs on the podcast to defend the Munk episode.

I also appreciate the civility with which you treat your guests and it gives me hope that as humans we can dialogue in a constructive manner even with great differences.

I grew up in Tanzania and was born in Zambia to american missionary parents that were focused on development in both countries. I have many friends there and my heart aches for myriad problems that Africa faces. Having spent 8 years of my life in Africa my world view has been shaped by that experience and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

I feel that the problems in Africa are cultural and many of them stem for a cultural history of tribalism. (I think these same ways of thinking also cause many of the problems in the middle east) You do what the leader says because he is the leader; not because they are a capable leader or because it makes sense. Individuality is not valued in the way it is in our western cultures.

This is also a reason why someone from the west that is influential can come in and effect change for a period of time, but when the program is over or he/or she leaves the program falls apart. Unfortunately because of these ways of thinking despotic leaders can take advantage of large groups of people without the people rising up to throw them out, and when they do the next leader is just as bad or worse than the deposed leader. Whether this leads to the other major problem in Africa or not I do not know. Corruption in government and NGO’s is one of the biggest problems in Africa. There is a thriving black market economy in most countries, but corruption and crime are so rampant that it is exceedingly difficult to do things in business, education and healthcare that we take for granted in the western world. Someone asked the question why economists from the African countries are not helping Sachs in his endeavors. Unfortunately many of Africa’s brightest have left for the west because of the overwhelming difficulty of doing anything meaningful at home.

I challenge anyone that is interested in helping Africa to take a summer and spend it in Africa.

I do not agree with some of Jeffrey Sachs’ methods but I wholeheartedly applaud him for not just talking theories in his classrooms but taking concrete steps to actually try to solve some big problems. I wish there were more people that had the resolve to attempt to put their philosophies into concrete action and I wish him the best of success.

Mar 29 2014 at 9:14pm

Very impressed with your patience in this episode Russ. During the first half, Sachs seemed to think he could win the argument by simply not letting you get a word in edgewise.

I came away with two conclusions:
1. Sachs may have a point that the various technologies and spinoffs from the Millennium Villages Project may end up justifying the cost, even if it ends up failing to meet its specific goals.
2. Despite your many attempts to explain Sachs did not seem to understand that your point about “smashing dreams” was a long-term concern. The project may improve life in a village for a decade, but when it ends things could backslide to a situation worse than when the project began. I have little doubt that 20 years from now the project will be viewed as a flash in the pan.

Mar 30 2014 at 6:13am

[Comment removed for name-calling. Please keep in mind our Civility Policies when writing comments. –Econlib Ed.]

Mar 31 2014 at 1:33am

I found it odd that “that which is not seen” was never specifically called out by Mr. Roberts.

When Mr. Sachs was going on about how great it was that 1 million lives had been saved by the mosquito netting that was put onto them, I kept yelling at my podcast player “Not when there _could have been_ 1.1 million lives saved by a free market choice for mosquito netting.” There could have been 100,000 lives lost due to _only_ getting 1,000,000 lives saved via the top down approach.

Thanks for the great interview.

Apr 16 2014 at 11:34pm

I tried looking for someone in the comments section taking Jeffrey Sachs’s side, but I got tired of looking.

Great podcast, Russ, between you and Dan Carlin (another podcaster) I can’t get enough of you two.

Thank you!

P.S. Liked the podcast comment from M. Barton, “The difference between these two men is that, while both believe deeply that he is right, Russ is at least willing to entertain the possibility that he’s wrong…

Sachs’ unyielding faith in his own ideas and his incapacity to even consider thoughtful criticism leads me to believe that he, like many planners before him, is afflicted with the fatal conceit…”

Comments are closed.



Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [Recording date: March 6, 2014.] Russ: My guest is Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University. Jeff, welcome back to EconTalk. Guest: Great to be with you, Russ. Thanks a lot. Russ: Our topic for today is poverty and the Millennium Villages Project [MVP], your ambitious effort to reduce poverty in some of the poorest parts of the world, and ideally to become a model for much wider efforts. I want to start with just the basic idea behind the Millennium Villages Project. What makes it different from other aid projects? Guest: The idea is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs]. So it is a goal-- Russ: Explain what those are and where they come from. Guest: Absolutely. In September 2000, the Member States of the U.N., the world's governments, agreed on eight development objectives for the period 2000-2015, to fight poverty and hunger, to get kids in school, to promote gender equality, to reduce maternal and child mortality, to fight diseases like AIDS and malaria, to ensure access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and to enable poor countries to take up new technologies--especially information technologies, and to have an effective partnership with the rest of the world. So, the purpose of the Millennium Villages Project is to actually help these very poor communities, 10 main sites in 10 countries in Africa. And now because of the interest in expanding them we're in places around Africa to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and to learn from that experience new approaches to fighting hunger, poverty, disease, illiteracy, and the other problems of extremely poor communities. Russ: And, what's the idea behind the Millennium Villages Project in terms of what makes them different? Guest: Well, the idea is an integrated strategy that is goal-based. And the goals are very clear: reduce child mortality, for example, by two-thirds compared to the baseline, so that one can see children surviving and getting on with normal lives. To get kids in school; to reduce malaria; and so forth. So, the goal orientation is an approach to work in this area that I find very important and powerful. You measure, you think about the things that can be done to accomplish these goals, you do various strategies and brainstorm. These are all being done at the local level, of course. Measure again; continue to learn. And of course this project will be completed with the Millennium Development Goal timetable next year, and we'll see how we've done. And that's the nature of the project. One of the things that's quite different in this project from others is that it's an integrated strategy: it covers agriculture, health, education, infrastructure. And this kind of integrated development lost favor with a lot of people; and indeed when we started this project, lots of people stood up and said 'Ah, this is impossible; this failed in the past, integrated rural development.' Well, it is an integrated rural development strategy, and I think it is going to show a way forward that is very important for rural areas across Africa.
4:21Russ: Let's talk about integrated development more generally as an approach to ending poverty. What's the idea, rather than, say, an alternative approach would be to focus on a particular problem. Why is it important to go across the board? And what are you trying to achieve? Guest: I think there are two basic reasons. One is that people care about various things in their lives. They would like kids to be in school, but they'd also like their kids not to be dying of malaria. They would like the kids to be vaccinated, but also to have enough to eat. So, people have many objectives that are pretty fundamental in meeting their basic needs of having enough food and income security and access to health care and so forth. So, you want to do a number of things when you start in a place where basic needs are not met. The second reason is the good sense that there are synergies--that it will be helpful in a community not only to work on agriculture but also to work on malaria control, so that the community isn't sick with malaria when it's harvest time. Or, not only to work on helping to insure that there are enough classrooms and trained teachers, but also that the kids aren't sick all the time with worm infections, and so on. So there are obvious synergies that have been noted for decades and decades. And the idea is that by working across a number of different areas it is possible to make better, more effective, lower-cost, more resilient and reliable progress than any one single objective. And there's lots of evidence of many, many kinds, say on controlling worm infections as a way to improve school performance. And so the linkages are strong across these various sectors. The knock on this kind of strategy in the past has been that it's too complicated. And part of the Millennium Villages Project is to test that proposition. My view is it's not too complicated; my view is that it is possible for a community, a district, to have strategies on agriculture, on water and sanitation, on electricity, on health care, because there is a division of labor in local government. There is a division of labor even at the village level. And there is no reason, it seems to me, to think that it's not possible to make progress on a variety of interconnected fronts.
7:21Russ: Well, as my listeners know, I'm somewhat skeptical of the simplicity of that approach--whether it works or not; and we'll get to that a little later on. But I want to cite something in support of the integrated approach, which is--we did a podcast episode of EconTalk with Paul Tough on how children succeed, and he discusses at length Jeffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone, which has taken a similar approach to poverty and the challenges of poor children in the United States, particularly in the urban setting of New York City. He appears to have been quite successful. It is very expensive. That would be one thing to say about it. The second is he, of course, is an American and he knows something about the people he is trying to help. I think one of the challenges that the Millennium Villages Project receives has been the attempt to have more of a top-down approach and whether that's possible given the complexity of these different things that we hope to have synergies, but maybe we don't understand fully the way they interact. Guest: Russ, let me start by saying that a lot of what you've apparently heard about the Millennium Villages Project and what's been said about it simply is not true. So, this is why I'm so pleased to be with you today. This is not a top-down approach. This is an approach that says that experts, locally--because this is all African development experts at the local level working in their communities, working on a variety of issues and working closely with the government and with the village communities and so forth can identify paths to help with the scale-up of critical challenges and interventions, whether it's health or higher incomes or education, and so forth. What is top down in the only sense is that the globally-agreed goals of fighting extreme poverty are shared goals. So, in the sense that this project is aiming to reduce child mortality, maternal mortality, deaths from AIDS, malaria control, access to safe water and sanitation, kids in school, improved agricultural production--yes, those are shared goals. But in terms of how this is to be done, this is by local experts working with globally-available knowledge and technology, and local needs, culture, traditions, patterns, and ecology to find the ways forward. And this project has been seriously misrepresented by people who never went and continue to repeat all sorts of things, because, from the day this started there were challenges that this is top down or Jeff Sachs working in his office in New York giving dictates and so forth. This could not be farther from the truth. Russ: I'll give you one example of the top-down approach that I worry about, which is: one of the alternative ways to fight poverty--and it's not necessarily my favorite, but it is a way--is simply to give people money. And it's my impression--correct me if I'm wrong--that one of the foundations of the projects in most if not all of the villages is to increase agricultural productivity. It's not obvious to me that that's the right thing to do. Maybe there are other things people would do with their money, get into other activities, find other ways to earn income. So that strikes me as the kind of top-down approach I'm worried about. As well as picking what crops are the ones they should specialize in and so on. Is that not the case? Has there not been-- Guest: It's absolutely not the case, Russ. And there are financial institutions that have grown--they're called SACOs--that provide financing locally to all sorts of activities. It can be agricultural, non-agricultural. We have, in Mayange, significant scaling up now of carpentry and of metal-working. This is what the local areas are identifying as their possibilities, what kind of crops. This isn't dictated from outside. I saw that Nina Munk claimed it was, and you eagerly agreed with her in your interview. But it's simply not the case. Various things are being tried by local experts. Believe me, I had absolutely no idea when this project started, and didn't until I heard about the wonderful work being done, that silk, sericulture, silkworm farming could be profitable in Ethiopia. This was identified locally. We know nothing about silkworm farming here in New York City, I can tell you. Russ: Yeah. Guest: And this is identified by local experts who are trying to figure out ways to help communities make more money, earn better livelihoods. And we're having this project in a wide range of ecological zones, with all sorts of different crops being produced. In Nigeria, soybeans. In Mali, it's rice. In Senegal, it's onions. In Ghana, it's cocoa. In Kenya, it's dairy and horticulture. In Ethiopia, it's sericulture. In Uganda, it's coffee and matoke. In Rwanda, it's cassava and carpentry. There are many, many non-agricultural activities as well as agricultural activities. These stories just circulate, like the urban legends but these are rural legends, of what's been said about this project.
13:36Russ: Well, I'm just looking at the Annual Report from 2012. It says, first paragraph [of the section'Introduction to Agriculture and Business Development' p. 14], "The main goal of the agriculture and business development sector of the MVP is to contribute toward MDG-1"--which is the Millennium Development Goals--"to halve"--cut in half--"the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and live on less than a dollar a day." It says, "The current focus of the sector has been on interventions that contribute to raising incomes including organizing farmers into farmer-based organizations and cooperatives, increasing and sustaining agricultural productivity, strengthening agricultural monitoring." Etc. So, that's the kind of language makes me think there's a big focus on agricultural. Guest: Russ, it said 'including.' Russ, that says 'including.' Russ: Yep, correct. Guest: It says including those ways. It didn't say limited to those ways. Have you been to a Millennium Village yourself? Russ: I have not. Guest: Have you been to rural Africa? Russ: I have not. Guest: Okay. I would welcome you to come see. You'd enjoy it. Russ: Fascinating. Guest: And you'd see what's really going on. And I'm delighted you raise a text like that because it gives a chance to ask and clarify. And part of the problem of much of the criticism is that people don't try to clarify. They don't ask. They just make swinging statements that absolutely have no basis in reality. Russ: Let me ask it a different way, then. Do you have a feel for how much non-agricultural productivity has been increased? Obviously agriculture is important. I'm not going to suggest that it's not. And there's been some spectacular increases--which is great--to the use of seed and fertilizer. Is there significant non-agricultural stuff going on? It's okay if it's not. Maybe there shouldn't be. I'm just suggesting-- Guest: I actually don't know quantitatively. We won't know till we do a very detailed survey next year to find out what household income is based on, what the kinds of activities are. We see lots of things happening, but I can't give you a number. But we see lots of local finance. People are not inert, as you know very well. They're not somehow subscribed to this project and that's the only thing they can do. These are real live communities. We have a number of advisers working, local experts all of them--no ex-pats--working, living in these communities, working with the communities and the district to identify things to do. But we actually don't know in any comprehensive sense what people actually are doing. Because they're doing all sorts of things. They're doing farming, they're doing non-farm activities. A lot of people are working in construction or seasonal work. We won't really know the quantitative answer to your question until next year.
16:38Russ: Let's go back to some of the basics. So, I know there has been a recent expansion in a number of countries, but originally and--quote--"so far", if you can measure it, how much money is involved? How much money has the project expended? And how many people do we think it's touched? I'm trying to get some measure of per capita amounts that we're talking about here for the size of aid. One of your interesting and provocative claims has been that we just don't spend enough; if we spent enough, we could get there, we could get over the hump. So, I'm curious: what do we know about how much the projects have spent so far? Guest: The core of the project is 10 village sites in 10 countries. And then around them are an expansionary, or we call the whole thing, that core village plus the expansionary, we call those clusters. So there are 10 clusters in the project, and they average about 50,000 people. It varies by country. So it's about 500,000 people total in the area. In the first 5 years of the project, really, I would say, depending on the site, from the second to fifth year, because there was a phase-in and we didn't envision the project exactly of what scale and what size at the beginning. It depended on what kind of fundraising was possible. We reached about $60 per person in the broad cluster from years 2 through 5. Then in the second 5 years, from 2011 to 2015, to the conclusion next year, we're phasing out kind of on a down ramp to 0 by the end of 2015. And that was the plan, that by 2015 this project would end and whatever responsibilities would be either individual or local community or government. And we have phased down the non-core-village site quite substantially; government has taken over basically all of the functions in all of the sites by now. And in the core one village per cluster, we're probably at about $40 per capita, something like that, right now. So, when you--I don't have a final sum of that, but when you think about a village or a community of 50,000 [corrected from $50,000--Econlib Ed.], at $60 per capita, which was the first part of the project, that was running at about $3 million a year per site. So for all 10 sites that would be about $30 million, and that would be, total, something like $120 million. Probably half of that in the second phase, as things are ramping down, and less than that right now, because we've substantially, as planned, cut back in the non-core part of the project, handed over a lot of the schools and facilities to the local government. And we'll phase out this core Millennium Village--we call it MV-1; that's the center of the project. We'll phase that out in terms of direct financing by the end of next year. Russ: Does the total spent include in-kind donations from corporations, local government spending, other things? Guest: Yeah, so this is a very good point. The whole project was based on a notion of about $120 per person per year invested in overcoming extreme poverty. And as you know, these are sites that were extremely poor, in poor countries. So these were just about the poorest of the poor in each of the respective countries. Russ: $120 is a small number. But unfortunately the base is pitifully small to start with. Guest: It is an incredibly small number and the fact that people live on such small amounts and die for lack of meeting basic needs is the whole motivation of the Millennium Development Goals and the purpose of this project. So, we said that we would aim to have about $60 of our own contributions and seek about $60 of counterpart contributions, coming from government, coming from the local community itself, coming from other NGOs. And during, I would say, 2009, 2010, 2011, because naturally it takes time to collect all the data and understand exactly where we were. We were running something like that, at about $60 from the project and about $60 from the combined contributions of government, community, and NGOs and local companies and so forth.
22:08Russ: The expansion, though, that's coming--I'm not sure when it starts or if it has started already--seems to be a much larger sum of money. This United Kingdom project in Ghana, for example. Is it more expensive? Roughly the same? Guest: I don't have the exact number for that one project in Northern Ghana, but I think it's something around $90-$100 per capita. I don't have the exact number on hand. That is reflecting two things. One is the $60 was--and the whole $120, in fact--based on prices of around 2005, 2006; and we've had a significant spike of energy prices most importantly, but other prices as well. So, making this in real terms would be quite important. In other words, inflation-adjusted. Second, the site in Northern Ghana is in the very north of a country where the economic activity is in the south of the country, so the infrastructure is very weak in the north. The transport costs, very, very high; the costs of inputs, construction, and so forth reflecting this relative isolation in the very north of the country. That's why we're working there. And so we put it at a little bit higher. But we're still looking for contributions from outside, and probably aiming for something around, in nominal terms, $150, $160 per capita. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me. Russ: I'm surprised at that, because there have been claims on the web that it's thousands of dollars per household. Guest: Yeah. But this is kind of--sorry to say it--this is really an effort just to confuse people. If you add, say, even $60 per person in a household and then you say the average size of the household is 6 people--so that's $360. And then you say that's for 5 years, so you're talking about something like $1800 and you make a pronouncement like that. And then you say, 'oh, it's not really the project but there's also the matching and so forth,' as if that's all incremental--'oh, that's $3600 per capita'. This is what Mr. Clemens, Michael Clemens did at one point. It tries to give an utterly distorted, hard-to-understand point of view: multiplied by the number of people in a household, at not what the project is giving but what government services and so forth would be giving, multiply it over 5 years; announce some big headline number that nobody has a clear idea about how to interpret. And then announce, 'well, they're giving thousands and thousands of dollars to households.' I regard that as very unhelpful and deliberately distorting, Russ. Russ: Well, I think the key question--we'll link to some of the articles, pro and con on this issue of cost--but I think the key issue here is effectiveness.
25:30Russ: Before I get to some overall measures I want you to discuss, I want to talk about one smaller issue, which fascinated me. How are the projects using Community Health Workers? Because there seems to be some enthusiasm for that, their effectiveness. I'm curious how they are being used. Guest: The project, in general, is exploring many, many innovative delivery mechanisms. Once we said $60 per capita coming from the project, or even less, you are on an extraordinarily tight budget. This is not some gold-plated budget. This is so tight. Because remember, 60 bucks per capita, that's for agricultural, that's for infrastructure, that's for schools, that's for a health system. I don't think most of your listeners could even imagine that. We have an $8000 per capita health system. We're talking about squeezing all of these advantages. And then I get this complaint, 'oh, look at how expensive this is.' It couldn't be less and still be talking about human beings, I have to say. We're trying to do everything possible--and I mean by we, the communities and the wonderful African experts leading this, and then anything that we can add in the brainstorming and the technology, to get as far possible given the absolutely meager budgets and extreme poverty that characterize the regions where these villages are located and that brought us to these places in the first place. So when you come to the question of health systems, my work, starting as the Chairman of a Commission for WHO, now, 14 years ago, the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, and then as the U.N.'s advisor on the Millennium Development Goals and my specific work in many of the disease control efforts on malaria and AIDS and others, have enabled me to make a claim--which is a tough one, but I will stand by it--that it is possible, even at $60 or $70 per capita, just $60 or $70 per capita, to have a rudimentary but lifesaving primary health system in an impoverished region. Now, mind you, given the extreme poverty in these places, the normal budget coverage is on the order of $15 per capita, not even the $60 or $70. I've claimed that if we could mobilize a bit more resources, we could help to save millions of lives, scale up core interventions and help young children to have a future, because they would grow up healthy and productive and with brain development and with their basic health needs addressed early in life. Community Health Workers is one part of that strategy that I'm thrilled with, in actual performance; we've worked very hard on it. The idea is to train village workers, people from the villages, typically young women, and some young men--though I would say predominantly young women, maybe age 20 to 25--who may have 10 to 12 years of schooling. They're literate; they're numerate; but they absolutely have no formal health training. And to train them, provision them, supervise and help support them with information technology so that they can be life-savers in their community. And we have implemented this process. It costs about $6 to $7 per person per year in the area, so it's part of maybe that $60 per year targeted health budget, which we can't quite achieve because we don't have the resources and the government doesn't have the resources to achieve that full coverage. We're probably at something like $40-$50 per capita on most of the sites. And the Community Health Workers is around $6, $7, $8, depending on which location. It's marvelous, what it can do. It's unbelievable what it can do. It's bringing malaria deaths down sharply. It's spotting kids that are in very dangerous situations, maybe an acute respiratory infection, maybe failure to thrive, meaning for whatever reason they're deeply undernourished, perhaps stunted at an early age. It's helping mothers to access ante-natal visits and be able to arrive with a plan to get to the clinic, to find transport and to know the clinic and to know how to do it in time for labor. It's bringing down maternal mortality. It is tracking the critical first thousand days of life, so-called, from conception through the second year, which is the most challenging time for survival and for ultimate long-term physiological, cognitive, brain development, and so forth. And so it's a great system. And it's such an exciting system that it's being scaled up very widely. And many of the specific modalities that we are exploring in the Millennium Villages Project, such as the information technology backbone, is being adopted on a much larger basis by the host governments.
31:39Russ: So that sounds good. I'd love to come to Africa some time, see what's going on. Guest: You're welcome to come to Africa. You'll enjoy it. Russ: But the question is magnitudes. And I'm sure there are many, many beneficial aspects for some of the improvements that have been made in these villages. But when we come to try to measure them, it gets quite--it seems to be more difficult to make the case. So, there have been two peer-reviewed articles that tried to look at stunting and child mortality, published by you and your group. The one at The Lancet had to be corrected because there were some mistakes made, but more importantly than the mistakes, the decrease in child mortality was actually less than the decreases in the neighboring countries where the clusters were located. Does that not discourage you about the impact of these efforts? Guest: Russ, it couldn't be further from the truth. Since you read the book by Nina Munk you'll recall chapters 8 and chapters 9 which describe my leadership and the role of the Millennium Villages in getting the malaria deaths down which has been the most significant success in getting child mortality down significantly in recent years in Africa. And the Millennium Villages Project played an important role and I'm very proud that I played an important role in that as well. And what we said already and what I was saying already back in the year 2000 and then throughout the whole Millennium Development Goal effort for the U.N. and then through the Millennium Villages Project is that it's possible to scale up these basic interventions at very low cost. There was a huge row about doing this. I am one of the architects of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria that helped to do this scale-up. I'm extraordinarily proud of that work and I'm extraordinarily pleased with how it's gone. But what happened was that we now have a way to get comprehensive coverage of some of these crucial life-saving interventions. And it's funny that in this book, The Idealist, Nina Munk does a good job actually, of describing the rather tough battle that I faced personally to argue for the mass scale-up of malaria control. The truth is, of course, that that's a battle where we had phenomenal victory. And malaria, which is a very difficult-to-control disease is down by about 50% now in deaths of children in Africa. It's a tremendous success of the past 13 years. And she actually describes in the book this big fight for the mass distribution of bed nets. She writes that everyone in the business was convinced that Sachs was behind the move. He probably was. And I was, actually. It is a matter of fact. And she describes the very tough battle for this. And it's worked. And so where is all this sardonic attitude coming from when one sees the success of millions of kids being saved? Russ: I don't think anybody is-- Guest: But Russ, you'd be surprised. Because people are sardonic about it and say that it's all terrible. You even said in your own interview with her that I "have smashed the dreams of people--it's one of the cruelest things in the world to come to a group of people, set their hearts on fire, and then it all comes crashing down and to smash it through your own hubris, it's so depressing" and so forth. Come on, Russ-- Russ: A transcript is a good thing isn't it? Guest: Russ, there are great advances that are being made, people should know about them without the cloud of all of this confusion. And Nina Munk's book concluded these two chapters by saying I'm arrogant. That was her conclusion. Not that lives are being saved. And then in the true spirit of a cynic, she says "OK, let's say that universal coverage of bed nets is achieved and that as a result, the rate of malaria transmission plummets"--by the way, both of which have occurred. "After four or five years, insecticidal long-lasting bed nets start to disintegrate. Unless they're replaced, transmission rates in Africa will start to rise. How likely is it that in four or five years Africans themselves will be able to afford new bed nets. Is it realistic?" And so on. In other words, take a success and just make sure that it's viewed in the most negative way. I don't know whether that's cynicism or just pessimism, but is the alternative that the kids should have died by the millions? I don't think so. This is a way forward that is proving scaled success. We should be proud of it. We should know it. We should note it. We should learn from it and we should build on it because it's happened at extraordinarily low cost. And it was a tough fight to get here. And then to be denigrated about dreams smashed and all the rest is not appropriate in this. We need to tell what's happened. What's happened is that despite a huge fight about aid, because there are many aid skeptics, there was a scale-up of development assistance for primary health care. The Millennium Villages played an important role in that in many different fronts. This is working in term of significant declines of mortality rates now. Russ: There's two issues. Let's leave Nina Munk's cynicism out of it. Because I don't know her well. You know her better than I do, but I did not in my time interviewing her or reading her book--she didn't strike me as a cynical person. She strikes me as-- Guest: But Russ, I was quoting you, not her. Russ: Oh, I know. Well, you quoted her twice. Guest: No, no, no. But I was quoting you as saying how cruel I am to smash the dreams of people. Russ: Well, I'll defend myself in a minute. But let's stick with the bed net issue, which is the following, it seems to me. The first is that going back to the facts, the child mortality rate in the villages where you are, did not decline faster, in fact declined more slowly. Guest: I really doubt that that's true and we'll find out because in all of those places the policies included bed net distribution more widespread than in just the villages-- Russ: Fair enough. Guest: Based on the lessons--and Russ-- Russ: Fair enough. Guest: Russ, I can tell you. Russ, please. That is 2007 or 2008 data in that paper. We will look next year, and I can tell you that from what we're seeing, if you want to hear a correct assessment, right now, we're seeing very significant drops of mortality rates because now community health systems, community-based delivery of healthcare, new prevention of mother to child transmission of AIDS, first 1000 days protocols, smartphones, and other interventions are playing a major role. We will see if it turns out that this is a general phenomenon, wonderful. If it is a general phenomenon, it will be in part because of the scale-up that I've been championing and that we've been demonstrating in the Millennium Villages. But we will see. I don't really want to, and I wouldn't interpret the data the way you are--talk about a 2008 data point. Let's talk about where we are right now, what we're seeing, what we're accomplishing, and then next year's evaluation will exactly address your question. Russ: Well it's your paper, not mine and it's the paper that was reporting-- Guest: I know, but you're citing something from the beginning of a project. Russ: First 5 years, Guest: Why are you doing that? Russ: First five years. Guest: No, no. By the way it's not even the first 5 years of the project. It is within the first 5 years of a 5 year project. Of a 10 year project, excuse me. So that's a kind of game-- Russ: No, I don't think it's a-- no, timeout.-- Guest: It really is not--it's not justified Russ. Russ: I thought the Lancet article covered 2007-2010 which would not be-- Guest: Yes. The project goes from 2005--2015. Russ: Right. So it was an assessment. Guest: It was the beginning of an assessment. Russ: Okay. I'm with you. I'm totally with you. Guest: And Russ, I'm going to say it again: What we have seen in public health in Africa, which I am very pleased to see and very proud of what this project and I also personally and the MDGs have contributed to, is a significant drop of deaths, because of the kinds of scaling up of primary health care that is possible right now at low cost. That is the crucial point. Russ: Yep. Guest: And if all of Africa achieves the Millennium Development Goals, I'm going to call it the most splendid success of all. Because that's really the point--how to get this scaled up. When in Kenya, the Health Minister saw what we had accomplished in the one site, and she said, 'I'm going to do this for the whole country,' and I helped her do this for the whole country; and then you get big drops of mortality everywhere, is that a failure of the project or a success of the project, Russ? Russ: The question is-- Guest: Does it mean that the impact of the project is small, or does it mean that it's significant? Russ: The question-- Guest: According to my critics, it means that the impact is small, because they say impact is the difference from the village from the neighboring village. That's absurd. If the impact of the project is to help the scaling up of a life-saving intervention that covers the whole country. They're interested in a statistic. I'm interested in the public health. And they are playing with words. The impact of the project was to help an Africa-wide scaling up of malaria control, both within these villages and outside the villages. I'm delighted that the progress of malaria control has been rapid outside the villages. That's the whole point of this project-- Russ: So am I-- Guest: I'm proud of the role-- Russ: You should be-- Guest: that the project has played in this.
42:41Russ: Yep, so am I. I think it's exhilarating, I think you should be proud of it; and I'm perfectly content to give you the credit for it. Because I think--it took a massive mobilization of energy and time and weedling and bargaining and negotiating. And it may be the single greatest thing you'll ever accomplish in your life. And that's glorious. But the question, as an economist, that we have to ask-- Guest: Well, I'm proud of it. Russ: You should be. Guest: And I'm proud of other things, too. Russ: You should be. Guest: I hope we can have many successes on many fronts. Russ: Right. Be great. Guest: This is a good one. Russ: It would be great if there were more. But the fundamental question is-- Guest: I'll tell you another one, Russ, if I might, just for a moment. Not a personal success only for that point. But just to explain the real battle that we're talking about. In the year 2000 there wasn't one single African on anti-retroviral treatment, with international official donor support. And only a handful in general, despite the fact that the epidemic was already infecting more than 20 million people. And they were dying without access to the most basic medicines. Now there are about 8 million on treatment because of the Global Fund, because of PEPFAR[?], because of other programs. It works. The costs have come down tremendously. The learning curve operates. Lives are being saved. The productivity of African economies has gone up considerably. The idea that AIDS would be the end of Africa's development obviously has long since passed, because the epidemic, though still serious, has turned down substantially and is on its way down; and now there are even more dramatic things that can be done in the future that are really exhilarating. Those were big fights also, because the aid skeptics say you can't do that. No way to get systems working; it will be too expensive; can't be managed. Africans won't be adherent to the medicines, and so forth. I've heard so much doubt over the years about the feasibility of doing basic things that are crucial for kids in school, for farmers to earn a decent income, for the basic infrastructure to be put in place, for people to be able to stay alive. And time and again these strategies work. And yet maybe because they work, the frustration of those who are against this kind of approach just rises more. So the din and the noise and the confusion turns out to be extremely high. We're actually in a period where tremendous things can be accomplished on many, many fronts. And we're empowered by great, breakthroughs of technology, especially information technology, which makes it possible to organize efforts that were beyond organizational capacity before logistics changed, and delivery mechanisms, and being able to track aid money and being able to police the absolute proper use of funds. Things that couldn't be done before are now routine because we have the capacities through better technologies. We have rapid diagnostic tests that allow diseases like malaria to be diagnosed not in a clinic many miles away but in a household, and not with complicated microscopy and lab reagents, but with a drop of blood on a very inexpensive plastic strip that detects an antigen. And so the possibility of solving these problems, Russ, is huge. And the skepticism, and the noise, and the confusion about this unfortunately is one of the big obstacles.
46:49Russ: Okay. Well, let me go back to this question of efficacy and effectiveness and cynicism. So, I agree with you. I think the adding of bed nets--and I'm happy to give you credit that the adding of bed nets in the villages made it easier to add them outside the villages, so that a comparison of child mortality within and compared to neighboring villages may not be suggestive of the real impact of the project or your efforts. But the fundamental question as an economist is not whether adding bed nets can reduce malaria, and reduce child mortality--they do, and that's wonderful. The question is whether that inexpensive, as you concede, approach is superior to the integrated approach which you are selling. You're selling an idea, which is very ambitious, which is much more expensive than bed nets; and the question is whether the money has been well spent, and whether there's the bang for the buck. So, that's the challenge--can we distinguish between the effectiveness of a cheap, small intervention that I think everyone accepts as a good idea, assuming that it does persist, and the broader ambitious claims you're making for the project as a whole. Guest: Sure. Not everybody accepted it as a good idea 9 years ago. Bill Easterly devoted part of his first chapter of White Man's Burden to denouncing the idea. He said it was a planner's dream and a practical nightmare and it couldn't work, and took pains to say that exactly the kind of approach that has worked, wouldn't work. So this is an ex post reading. But at the time there was little support for it, which is why the fight was so hard. And I would say that that's true on many, many fronts that this project is helping to scale up. Showing how Community Health Workers can work and can work so effectively has been a big success of this project which is now being taken up at national scale in the. We've introduced Community Education Workers the same way to help get kids in school and help them to learn better. This is another area where at very low cost it's possible to make significant progress. We've shown how one can have distributed off-grid solar power in an extremely effective manner on a business basis--prepay solar, like prepay phones. And this is one of the innovations that is now being scaled up in many countries in Africa, a project called SharedSolar that the engineering team of this project has helped to develop. We've helped to create a number of information systems so that one can have monthly information. It took a long time, by the way, but now that we have good connectivity, we have smartphones, we have the training, the programming that was needed for this. Also the international system is quite complicated with all the approvals and all the rest that need to be done, especially when one is handling clinical information and so forth--all of that is now in place. And that information system, the host countries are saying, 'oh, we could use that at a national level.' And we're helping the Nigerian government, which is indeed a very complicated country with 160 million population to have for the first time, information that reaches into what are called their local government areas. We have several important innovations in business development, especially the so-called SACOs, which are community-based, very effective finance institutions. We didn't invent them by any means, but we're finding them to be very powerful instrument for the kind of local finance that you'd really like. And that's what's financing a lot of the up-scaling in things like dairy and honey and sericulture and aquaculture and other things that I mentioned earlier, which are coming from the ground up, just as you would like. We have a massive project now in digital soil mapping that emerged from the science of this project and the realization that improving soil fertility was a very inexpensive pathway to major increases of crop yields. It absolutely horrified me-- Russ: Let's talk about the crop yield-- Guest: Sorry. Russ: Let's talk about the crop yield for a second. Guest: Sure. Russ: Because, we talked earlier about agricultural productivity being increased in some of the areas. It's been quite dramatic. It's been two-fold and three-fold, which is very impressive. It's hard to understand how that's going to be a scalable solution, right? The increases in productivity are going to lead to lower prices. Profitability of agricultural tends to be--profit margins are quite small. It seems it's going to be difficult and challenging to get lots of farmers above subsistence by making them more productive. Do you worry about that? Guest: Well, agricultural upgrading has been a key part of economic success in every region of the world that I know of. And the basic idea is that when you get the crop yields up, then a much smaller proportion of the population has to engage in farming to meet basic food needs.
52:44Russ: And that brings me to my next question, which is: The real criticism of Nina Munk, and my interview with her--and you've talked about my cynicism or sardonic nature, as well as hers--is her observation that there was little sustainable transformation of livelihood, of jobs. So the question to me is--and this, to me, is the fundamental question. Many of these things I think are great; they're wonderful. Whether they're cost-effective is a second question. But certainly you're having an impact on people's lives during the course of the project. The challenge is: Is there a sustainable market? Is there a way for people to buy and sell? And what I wrote after that interview was: We better ourselves by bettering others. And what a market does is it allows you to help other people by doing something that they value and they pay you for it. Do you see that happening? And why didn't that appear to be happening, at least to an on-site visitor in the two villages that Nina Munk was in? Guest: Okay. Of course it's happening. And Russ, you love markets; I love markets. And of course markets are functioning. And they function better now that there are phones, now that there is more electrification, now that the roads are improved. Because transactions costs are a critical part of making markets work. Russ: Absolutely. Guest: And markets are working in rural Africa, and they are working in Africa more generally. And as you know, economic growth in Africa has been rising significantly. I regard that as a result of a number of different phenomena. One is of course the pull of China, which has made a big difference to primary commodities' prices; it has helped lift agricultural prices; it's helped lift other commodity prices that Africa is complementary to China in supplying their demand. Big gains of productivity coming from the mobile revolution, which is sweeping Africa the same way it's sweeping other parts of the world. Increasing investments now in electrification and in other critical infrastructure. And I think it's worth my saying, though I wouldn't have thought there would have been such confusion about it, but you know I'm a macroeconomist and development economist and I've worked in about 130 countries around the world at some level or another, or visited that number and worked in most of them in one way or another. And I want to be very clear that rural development is one part of overall economic development. It's only a piece of the overall puzzle. It's not meant to be the ultimate solution to all of the challenges of Africa. I've said constantly, though I don't think necessarily Nina Munk reported it or got it exactly, that rural development has to be complemented with urban development, of course, because most of the population is going to end up being urban, not rural, in the end. That's part of the goal, actually, of rural improvement. People who say that rural productivity will have people stay in the countryside have it exactly backwards, for the reason you just explained. Everywhere in the world, you raise agricultural productivity, the children head to the cities. That's how it works. So we need urban strategies. And I work with a number of governments on that. We need national and indeed regional infrastructure. So there are many different scales and many different aspects of overall development. I am pleased that Africa, the sub-Saharan region, is now growing at between 5 and 6% per year, maybe 6% this year. The IMF forecasts that sub-Saharan Africa will be the world's second-fastest growing region. Of course, you and I know that is just the beginning of catching up growth. They ought to be the fastest growing region in the world for two or three decades to come, to narrow some of these phenomenal gaps. But we see the growth starting from what was terrible--at best stagnation and even reversal during the period 1980-2000. So, I see lots of good things happening. The sustainability of what's happening in the villages--well, yes, there are markets, of course, that are being formed. There are some wonderful projects--it's not even projects; it's just what you would call normal market development, what I would call normal market development. In Nigeria, for example, there is a very strong value chains that have been developed. So, there are about 4000 farmers in the project that are part of maize and soybean, completely commercialized value chains. That's not our commercial chains. Those are buyers that are buying up the products, just on a perfectly normal market basis. And this is of course what has to happen. Ethiopia, to my shock as I already said it earlier, is developing a sericulture chain. I don't know anything about silk farming. I find it fascinating that one of the Millennium Villages is doing this and is finding marketing links and ways to sell the silk to Addis, ways that the silk weaving is actually finding its way to international markets. And so you're absolutely right that if this were truly an island of isolation, if this were a central plan, if this were some naive experiment of Mr. Stalin or somebody like that, it would be absurd. The idea here is absolutely to help provide the basics--the basics of health, deworming, nutrition, education, roads--basic feeder roads because they're just feeder roads; we're not building major roads--but feeder roads, water, sanitation. Help with business organization to start up SACOs, these mutual chains or to make contacts with buyers and to identify agronomic limitations that can be overcome through soil nutrient improvements or other agricultural practices, or introducing better seeds. We're not out to create an autarkic economy. You know me. I've been writing about the value of trade and markets all my career. I'm a huge believer in markets. And I know that there's no development without markets. And there's no sustainability in Africa, Russ-- Russ: No doubt. Guest: without urban development and without industrial development as well. Russ: The problem is-- Guest: So this is just a piece of this. Russ: The problem-- Guest: It's not a problem. Russ: No, but the problem is-- Guest: It's not a problem--it's a piece of the puzzle. Russ: No, the problem is I don't think we know very much as economists about how to create markets. We certainly understand what they are capable of doing once they're established. We understand that they are--good economists understand that they are buttressed by culture and norms and all kinds of unobservable things that we can't seed or grow. We have to let them emerge. And we don't know how to help them emerge, so I don't know-- Guest: I don't agree with--I don't agree with that. I just don't agree with that. My experience has been that if there is a functioning port, if there are roads, if there's electricity, if there is communication markets will take the opportunity and people will find ways to make money. And that can happen in a number of ways. It can be some local entrepreneurship, and it can be some international entrepreneurship. Last time I was passing through Addis Ababa, I met a woman who--from China--who's exporting shoes from Addis. She said: now that the transport costs in Djibouti have come down so much and now that the wages in China have gone up so much, this is a great low-cost production site for me. And she was expanding to millions of shoes. This is how things get--
1:01:46Russ: Yeah, I agree with you. So, let's-- Guest: Yeah, but that's-- Russ: Let's come back to this bottom up, top down issue we started with. If you take a group of farmers in a desperately poor village and you give them seed that makes them more productive, you change their lives. Mostly for the good, I assume. And it appears that it was mostly for the good, in the villages where that happened. But that isn't what they chose to do on their own. I don't think they picked the kind of seed. They didn't vote. They didn't have--they weren't given money to decide which kind of seed they wanted to increase, the productivity, what kind of crops. And so inevitably there are decisions that are made that are not really market decisions. And it seems to me that is going to affect the effectiveness of the project. Guest: Russ, you could have said the same thing, and people did say the same thing, about malaria nets: 'Why are you doing this? There's a market out there and if people really want them, let them buy them.' And yet more than a million kids were dying of malaria. And there was a solution, obviously, in sight. And that solution has worked. And it has been taken up, as it should be, as a public health challenge. And it's working. Russ: But that's not a--but that doesn't imply that increasing-- Guest: And it's been-- Russ: But that doesn't imply that increasing the productivity of maize farming is going to lead to a better life the way malaria bed nets did. It's not the same. Guest: Well, it is the same. Because in the African context there has been a very specific problem, which is that the poorest of the poor have just been left to face disaster where they could not afford inputs, they could not improve their soil nutrients, they could not get access to markets or seed, they didn't have agricultural extensions. So this is the sector because the World Bank had decided back in 1985 basically that there shouldn't be almost any public role whatsoever in helping some of the fundamentals, even for the world's poorest people. What you could see in the early 2000s was a plain disaster, like the public health disaster. But this was the agriculture disaster, that yields were a tiny fraction of what they could be, and a tiny fraction of the profitability of what they could be, because, you know, that when people have no collateral at all, when they have no knowledge of what is potentially available, when there are not markets there to begin with because they don't exist and farmers can't afford even a bag of fertilizer, you have a start-up problem. And throughout the world, the improvement to high yield seeds and more intensive farming, has often, especially in the more difficult areas, needed a kind of jump-start. I'm not for that for the long term. I don't want to see farming on a state-run basis any more than you do. But when you concede that you have a continent of impoverished small-holders who literally, despite back-breaking labor every day could not grow enough to eat because their soils did not have enough nitrogen in them and the seeds could not support a decent crop, you have a problem. And that problem was not only festering. That had gone on for 15, 20 years of tragedy while the rest of the world was climbing in crop productivity--agricultural productivity in African grains was stuck below 1 ton. Now you say that we forced them to do this and to do that. That is not the case. And everywhere, locally-- Russ: No, you chose for them. That's all I meant. Guest: It's not even so, Russ, because after the first couple of years this quickly transitioned to solutions like local banks and to SACOs. We don't even subsidize the fertilizer right now except for widows on .1 hectare farms and so forth, where it's clearly a social support policy. For the rest, this is organized in markets. This is organized through SACOs. This is organized through cooperatives. This is organized through value chains. I don't know where the idea comes from except the fact that it's really important to understand, really important, that Nina Munk visited this project in the beginning stage of the project. She reported from one site that is absolute not even one of the 10 core sites. And I'll be happy to talk about it, but absolutely extraordinary--it's the one place in the project in a war zone. In a violent zone. Extraordinarily difficult, one of the harshest environments you'd find anywhere in the world. And the other site, she reports an anecdote from, I think it's 2008, as if that's the end of the story. And so a lot of this idea that one has about this is unfortunately what has been said again and again, not based on at all how the project actually works. It's just a basic point. Russ: I'll let Nina Munk defend herself, which she has done. Guest: Sure. Of course she will. Russ: People can read her book and listen. Guest: Absolutely.
1:07:28Russ: But it does raise the fundamental question that we'll close on this--we're overtime but it's worth it because I think it's such a crucial set of issues that we're talking about. So, maybe she's wrong. Maybe she misperceived things. But of course, there's a possibility that you're wrong, that you, as the head of the project are not really the best judge. The challenge, and you've been criticized by a lot more people than Nina Munk--you've been criticized by a large swath of the Development Economics folks. Because it's going to be very difficult in 2016 when the project comes to an end to evaluate whether it's been successful. And again, success isn't: people's lives are better. I hope they are; I expect them to be. Usually they are; not always--sometimes there are really awful unintended consequences. And those are the ones I was referring to in our quote which you took from our transcript, which I still think is true, that if-- Guest: No you don't. Russ: Yes, I do. Guest: You really think I smashed the dreams of the people in these villages, Russ? Russ: I think it-- Guest: Do you think that they're unhappy right now, by the way? Russ: I have no idea. Guest: I know you don't. But you said so. You said I smashed their dreams and that was the cruelest thing that could be done. Russ: Well, I have-- Guest: Do you really think that's the case? You didn't raise that question. You asserted it, by the way. Russ: Yes. So here's how--let me explain why I believe that, or why I at least worry about it. And that was based on the evidence that Nina Munk gathered in her 6 years with you. So, it wasn't like-- Guest: She wasn't 6 years with me. She came on 6 visits of roughly 1 per year. And by the way, she visited an average of one week per year in the first half of a project. That you just want to know-- Russ: Okay, well we'll see. We'll see. The question is-- Guest: What do you mean, 'we'll see'? Russ: Well, we'll see how it turns out. We'll see how-- Guest: I know, but Russ, you said--I'm sorry--that part of what Jeffrey Sachs does that I think is so destructive and deeply unfair is that I use a kind of emotional blackmail, blah, blah, blah; cruelly disappointed, harmed the people he supposedly set out to help. No. Sorry. That's Nina. What you had said is that the cruelest thing in the world is to come to a group of people to take their dream and to smash it-- Russ: I think that's true-- Guest: through my own hubris. Russ: I think it's true. Guest: Come on, Russ. Russ: I think it's true that it's cruel-- Guest: You think I smashed their dreams? Russ: I think it's cruel to smash people's dreams. Guest: Yeah. You think that I've done that? Russ: Well, that's the question, isn't it. Guest: Well, yeah, I'm sorry. Is it the question of millions of people alive today because of scaling up of these critical health interventions, farmers getting more yields, higher yields? Do you think that kids in school, more water supply, sanitation available, rural electrification--you could say I'm--that there are better ways to do it. Russ: You're telling stories. No. You're telling-- Guest: Russ, you could say that-- Russ: No, that's not what I said. Guest: Russ, you could say there are better ways to do it. You could say, is this really cost-effective--although I would say that $40 per capita now or $60 per capita then is hardly the extravagance it's been painted to be. But to say that I've smashed their dreams. Russ: No, what I said is that I said-- Guest: It is what you said. Russ: Read it again. Guest: Okay, I'll read it in its entirety. "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." That's what you said. Russ: Yes. And-- Guest: I haven't smashed their dreams. Russ: Well, I don't know if you have. Guest: Their kids are alive and they're staying healthier and their kids are in school and they have some chances and you can say I'm an imperfect person and it's an imperfect program and-- Russ: Of course it is-- Guest: maybe you could do better. Russ: That's OK. No. No. Guest: And I'm sure that there are ways to do better. But to call this one of the cruelest things. Russ: Well, one of the cruelest things is to smash people's dreams. The question-- Guest: Yep, and as you said, smash their dreams--I think that since you haven't even been once, you haven't talked to one person in a village, you haven't even been to rural Africa. To make a statement like that--you didn't say, 'Did he?' You weren't interviewing. You were making an assertion. Russ: Yeah. Guest: What is the basis of that assertion? What is-- Russ: The basis of that assertion is-- Guest: even one shred of evidence for that?
1:12:22Russ: Well, again, if you read the 'if' part, which is part of it, it says if you build up people's hopes and smash those dreams, it's a very cruel thing. You're claiming you haven't done that. You're claiming what you've done is you've made their lives better; and I conceded at the beginning of the quote--and I still concede throughout this program, throughout our conversation, that you've done some wonderful things in Africa. The fundamental question is: Is there--this is the question--Have the lives of the next generation, of the 14-year old boy or girl in those villages, have their prospects improved? It's great that they're alive. I don't disagree with that. You know I don't. And if it's malaria bed nets that got them there, God bless 'em, I think that's wonderful, and God bless you for getting them there. That's wonderful. The question is whether the entire approach, which does promise transformation, has actually transformed. Let's close--and I would argue that if in fact it hasn't, and if in fact what you have done, even with the best of intentions, is to encourage people to believe that the intervention of outside money across a wide scale of activities is going to transform their lives and it doesn't, that will be tragic. And it will be very sad. So the fundamental question is: What--how will we decide whether that's happened or not? How will we decide? And I want you to defend yourself against a different claim, which is the one we'll close with, which is: Many people in the development community, the community of Development Economists, have said that there is no way in 2016 that we can accurately, or even begin to, evaluate whether these interventions have been successful or not. And that is unfortunate. Earlier on you said, in 2016 after the 10 years we'll have a full picture. What will we have a full picture of? So my last question is: Who will evaluate the efficacy of these projects other than you? I don't know you, Jeff. I think you're probably an incredibly dedicated and hard-working person for people who you are trying to desperately help, who desperately need help. I don't deny that. But the question is: Who will evaluate, what information will this project provide, that might lead to further improvements or knowledge? Guest: Well, Russ, I would start with the market test. The market test is that this project is so successful from the point of view of the governments in terms of how to deliver services and what they can learn from it, and the communities that it is spreading now to more than twice as many countries as it started, to 21 countries right now and others that are asking also to be part of it. Governments are using their own funds. In order for that to have happened there have been countless visits by parliamentarians, by local officials, by experts that have said, do we want to do this, do we want to do this in other parts of our country? And the answer has been yes. And now just last week in Northern Uganda, Uganda is using its own funds to expand the project into one of their dryland regions. The governments are taking up many of the key interventions. That's the point. And the interventions on malaria control have been scaled up and are saving millions of lives. The interventions on preventing mother-to-child transmission. The interventions on helping to insure that people with AIDS are on treatment. The methodical approach to the first thousand days of life, with monitoring systems and so forth, are being taken up. The information systems that we're using in the project that allow for GIS-referenced, downscaled, timely information for development planning are being taken up at national scale in a number of the countries. The integrated, pre-paid photovoltaic-based electricity systems at village scale are being taken up in a number of the countries. The digital soil mapping, which is an important tool for helping farmers to be able to grow more food--and yes, of course connect with the markets--are being taken up. And so what is important is whether some of the lessons of this, how to do things, how to make things work better, how to have an integrated information system approach so that it's possible to manage a range of activities from a monitoring and an evaluation point of view, are being taken up. When we look at the picture, not only of the impact of this project but the impact of the ideas Africa-wide, I'm very optimistic. Of course, the world remains a very shaky and dangerous place in a lot of ways. But Africa's growth is now close to 6%, maybe even 6% aggregate this year. I believe it can and should go up to 8 to 10% per year growth during the next 15-year period, it's possible, even faster. There are ways to scale up the basic ideas of getting these targeted investments in basic infrastructure and rural electrification on a very large scale, and we're working with a number of governments to do that, in Mozambique, in Ghana, in Ethiopia, and elsewhere. The idea of large-scale targeted very inexpensive primary health systems being scaled up is now an accepted idea--President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria is hosting a conference shortly on universal healthcare coverage, because now it's understood that it's possible, it's within reach to make a decisive breakthrough in what was by far the most disease-ridden continent in the world. So, I'm feeling very good about Africa's prospects. I have no-- Russ: But the fundamental question is-- Guest: I have no illusion that there is a lot of challenge ahead, that Africa remains very poor. But I can see that there are ways forward, through absolutely integrated strategies that focus on scaling up infrastructure, health care, education, and helping that agricultural breakthrough--not so that the next generation remains in agriculture. It won't mean that the next generation is in cities doing something different. But at least some will be behind in far more productive farms. And that's how development works. And I believe that it's Africa's turn to have that kind of development. Russ: So, how are you going to convince someone like me, who is skeptical? Or, I'll put myself in the shoes of your donors. And it's important to remember that almost all the original money--maybe all of it--was privately donated by people who were inspired by your vision. So, if you came to me as a donor and said, 'I want to do this again in South America', and I as a donor said, 'Well, how do I know that it worked?' What would you be able to tell us, and what do you hope you'll be able to tell us in 2016? Guest: We will be able to show what the tools we are recommending, what we have, how they work. People can buy them or they can buy the Galaxy or the iPhone alternative, if they want, Russ. That's how a market works. And we will have a number of tools of how local health systems can be implemented, how digital soil maps, how off-grid PD[?]-based electricity if that's what's called for, and how other aspects of rural development can be best implemented. These are powerful tools that the-- Russ: But what evidence? Guest: governments of the region are very excited about. They've come. They've seen. They've discussed at length at the community; they've looked at how these function and they know how their own systems function. That's why they are scaling up Community Health right now, that's why they are asking for scaling up the off-grid solar; that's why they are asking for scaling up the information systems. They recently combined, a number of countries recently borrowed what is their own money from the Islamic Development Bank, more than $100 million to fund scale-up activities--in Chad, Mozambique, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, and scaling up in Uganda where one of the sites is, but now there will be another site in the north. The government of Mali has asked us to help them work on an integrated national plan. The government of Ethiopia, the same way. The government of Rwanda the same way. That's the market test--if others have better tools-- Russ: It's an interesting market test. There is some value to it, I don't deny it. Right? But you're talking about governments choosing a particular set of approaches. I would be a little more impressed maybe if the donors were continuing to fund it, rather than people who can-- Guest: Well, the donors funded the specific project. This project is coming to an end at the end of 2015. It will be thoroughly evaluated; we'll have the metrics. Russ: That's my question. Guest: Yes. Russ: Can you thoroughly evaluate it? What does that possibly mean? You've been criticized for the fact that--there are many people who believe it cannot be critically evaluated. And it's not going to be independently evaluated. Is there any plan to evaluate it independently outside of your team? Guest: Yes, there is. There will be an independent team on the data collection, there is an independent expert group that is overseeing the evaluation. We are bringing in critics as well as just generally interested people to discuss the protocols. And so this will all be done in a completely open, transparent, and shared basis. You can count on that. Russ: I look forward to interviewing you again in 2016. Guest: I hope we can talk about other things even before then, because it's always fun to talk to you. And with you.