Report Card on Millennium Villages

jeffrey-sachs-photoNew Orleans The first report cards at the 5 year mark for some of the 80 Millennium Villages, including Sauri, in Africa are coming in now, and despite criticisms and skeptics, including me, you have to have a horse to beat a horse, and Jeffrey Sachs’ project is proving that it can produce real and measurable results.  A headline in the New York Times on a Jeffrey Gettleman article, “Shower of Aid Brings Flood of Progress,” says it all in a sentence.

Not surprisingly, if you focus hard with a full court effort on health, education, agriculture, housing, and other fundamental issues, you can harvest some concrete results.  I don’t say that to belittle the achievement, but to complement the strategy.

The problem though is Sachs’ BIG SALE, meaning his claim that one could eradicate global poverty with high inputs, high tech, high touch, externally driven methodology.  In the bigger world I’m not sure about that, especially since the Sachs operations are all building for the most part in smaller settings when so much of poverty and population are in the big cities where the poverty can be more intractable and, frankly, where the absence of a strategy to build real power for the poor will mean fewer and more temporary success.  So, those are my reservations, but they are not reasons to carp on any success and any innovation when it emerges, so my hat is off to Sachs for getting this entire operation up and running and achieving the results in real places with real people.

Rather than celebrate and see whether a model is being created here, the critiques seem to fall in two camps.  One is whether or not this project is truly “scalable,” or in English, can it get exponentially bigger and deliver?  I’m not sure, but I’m not clear that it matters.  If the program expands from the 80 villages in various countries to a larger footprint in those countries, then there will be more tests and adaptations that will mold the project if it has momentum, and, as I said, there’s no program that is similarly ambitious or to this scale to offer an alternative that is any better at this point, so, hey, why not?

The other camp is one that wants to make the business of poverty eradication to be a high school science project and measure not only the results in the villages, but do so against “control” villages and make the whole operation similar to the elaborate testing process for new drugs, which are expensive and time consuming and have their own critics for just those reasons.  In fact in the article itself it was hard to ignore that the President of the Center for Global Development in Washington was ready to be a cheerleader in the Sachs fan club, and later in the article a research fellow was complaining that there wasn’t enough data and “science” to the projects and making the case for a drug trial experience for the poor.  I wouldn’t want to have been in that staff meeting after the communications director for the Center finished talking about “speaking with one voice.”  And, the point they made about poor people being studied all the time and getting nothing for it:  shame on them!

Sachs defense was interesting.  He didn’t want to be any more colonial than they were already being and subject the poor to testing for nothing other than the sake of testing.  Well, right enough, but he also argued that eliminating poverty is not like a pill, because there are stops and starts, advances and retreats.  True enough, but Sachs will lose that argument in the end and the answer makes it seem like he is shielding uneven results and numbers to keep the money rolling.  This is all about the money, and those countries that do not want to give more aid money will use the lack of numbers as an excuse to not pony up more, so eventually Sachs will have to buckle down for the bucks.  That’s just the way it works with donors.  They expect it, and they tend to get what they want.

Sachs is getting smarter though that may not help sell his books.  In the article Gettleman writes:  “Mr. Sachs says he is the first to admit that he cannot do it all.”  Furthermore, in an additional reality check, Sachs says:  “What we’re focusing on…is about one-third of the problem.”

Fair enough!  And, one-third is more than a lot of folks are trying to put their arms around, so after Nancy Birdsall organizes the fan page, I may have to finally join now that the feet are more firmly planted on the ground.

Now, if they would just talk about real organizing and real power, sigh, rather than just mention it in passing as they run from the village to the bank, I’d really be happier and ready to go to work with them.

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