National Edition

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

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

In Dertu, Kenya, where I spent a lot of time on the border of Somalia, there was a water well built by UNICEF in the 1990s. It's a life-saver for the area, one of few sources of water in an arid spread of land populated by nomadic camel herders. But every time the well pump breaks down, it can take months and months to fix it or for parts to arrive. And in the meantime, people just drop dead.

I saw with my own eyes that when resources are scarce, people become brutal. I was in the village one September when the water well broke down, and the Millennium Villages Project decided to keep people alive by bringing in huge water tanks to supply water. But the supply of water simply wasn't enough to sustain the people and their camels. And before long fighting broke out, and a 16-year-old boy was stabbed to death because he was accused of cutting in line for water. The driver of the water tanker was beaten up by a mob. When you see desperate people fighting over limited resources you begin to understand how fragile human life is there.

DN: In Dertu, thousands rely on a single water source. Is the Millennium Villages Project creating a magnet holding people somewhere that cannot support them?

NM: One of the consequences of the Millennium Villages Project pouring a lot of money into this pastoral community is that more and more people gave up being camel herders and decided to settle instead in town. Thanks to the Millennium Villages Project, Dertu became an island of prosperity. There was a fully functioning clinic, a vastly expanded school, all kinds of new investments that encouraged nomads to become sedentary. I returned again and again to Dertu, and I saw this place that had been a sort of wide-open pastoral area begin to resemble an urban slum, with tightly packed housing, sewage running through the streets. It was, again, a horrible unintended consequence of good intentions.

DN: So you have the compaction of the people, and then there is nothing really for them to do economically?

NM: Absolutely not. There is no economy to speak of in Dertu. The nomadic herdsman coming through trade or sell livestock. Some of them sell camel milk. Basically the only economic activity there has been gun-running and cattle raiding. This is the great failing of the Millennium Villages Project, and of so many other antipoverty efforts in developing parts of the world.

Jeffrey Sachs and his team came in and spent a great deal of money to lift people on what Sachs calls the “ladder of economic development.” Health care was improved, malaria went down, more children were in school. They had one success after another in basic indicators. But that doesn’t mean people had jobs. Nor was there is anything to suggest there could ever be industry in a place like this.

DN: What have you learned that you think extends to charity work and nonprofits generally?

The lack of transparency is unfortunately the only way that many NGOs know how to operate. They are afraid that if they tell their donors about failures the flow of money will stop. In order to keep funding, nonprofits are forced to paper over and in some ways lie about some outright failures. Anyone who has ever worked in development knows perfectly well that maybe as much as half the money ends up being wasted. We have to be willing to embrace failure to make progress. My book is not about the failure of a project. My book is about how excruciatingly difficult it is to lift people out of poverty, how we need to try harder and be more humble and honest with ourselves about what works and what doesn't.


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