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Saving Africa? New book casts harsh light on prominent poverty program

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 4 2013 3:20 p.m. MST

People pull jugs of water filled from a borehole in Dertu, Kenya.

Khalil Senosi, ASSOCIATED PRESS

A contributing editor at "Vanity Fair," Nina Munk’s work is widely published at the highest levels. For her new book, “The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty,” she spent six years following the Millennium Villages Project. The brainchild of Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, MVP has over the past 10 years funneled more than $100 million into an ambitious antipoverty program in Africa. Munk’s book focuses closely on two villages — one in Kenya and the other in Uganda. In both she finds the ground littered with the unintended consequences of an inordinately ambitious project.

“Sachs offered a seductive message to Westerners: that they could be the saviors who could end poverty in Africa with a modest amount of effort,” wrote New York University economist William Easterly in “Barron’s.” “After reading Munk's superb book, nobody will ever again think ending poverty is really that easy.”

The Deseret News interviewed Munk on her book, on the roots of poverty in Africa, and on the potential for interventions that could end it.

DN: Did you begin your project as a skeptic?

NM: I don't think I knew enough to be skeptical. In hindsight, I went in naïvely. But, I think more than that, I went into it hopefully. Like most people, I want very much to believe that it is possible to end extreme poverty, and that we can do something to help people living lives of desperation. I wanted it to work out. In my book proposal I said I wanted this book to have a happy ending. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out as I had expected.

DN: What is the core takeaway from your book, if you had to sum it up in 30 seconds?

NM: In the quest to end poverty it is important to understand that theories that we develop in academic environments can't anticipate the chaos of the real world. In trying to put into practice the theories he outlined in "The End of Poverty," Jeffrey Sachs discovered that human beings are unpredictable and irrational. It turns out that ending poverty is a lot more complicated than some people think. It sounds obvious, but it's not.

DN: Give us some examples of the kinds of chaos in the Millennium Villages Project you saw that were simply not anticipated.

NM: The question is how you connect places in the middle of nowhere to the global economy. The Ugandan village I reported from, Ruhiira, is days away from the capital city. There are no paved roads, no electricity, no running water. Meanwhile Jeffrey Sachs and his team, hoping to create a modern economy from scratch, introduce fertilizer and high-yield seeds, with the idea that people would grow and sell cash crops — tomatoes, soybeans, corn. These are places where the most advanced farming technology is a hand hoe. And sure enough, when you introduce fertilizer, you get extraordinary results. In Ruhiira, in a single season average maize yields increased from 1.8 tons per hectare to 3.7 tons. There was an enormous bumper crop.

The problem was what to do with the crop. No one had really thought of the next stage. There were no storage facilities for the surplus, and there was no market for it. Southern Ugandans don’t like maize, but the village was so far away that any profits would be wiped out by transport cost. Then there were rats and vermin who took over the town. Eventually the farmers threw up their hands and dumped the maize on the market and prices collapsed.

Ruhiira is a perfect example of what goes wrong with well-intentioned ideas. Providing fertilizer and high-yield seeds is a magnificent idea. It looks flawless on paper. But soon you face a whack-a-mole problem. You fix one problem but a whole host of others suddenly pop up.

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