Jeffrey Sachs: Idealist or Extreme Pragmatist?

Nina Munk's book about economist Jeffrey Sachs portrays his defense of the global poor as an act of faithful idealism. She could not have it more wrong.

December 16, 2013

CREDIT: Kevin Tsui (CC)

"Never trust anyone who functions from noble motives. The good are never sure, and in the end they'll let you down."

— Yul Brynner's General Bounine in Anatole Litvak's film Anastasia (1956)

Early in The Idealist, Nina Munk's new book about economist Jeffrey Sachs, the author reminds readers of a passage from Sachs's memoir cum manifesto, The End of Poverty. The scene is a late night brainstorm with Jacek Kuroń of Poland's new Solidarity government; Sachs has just realized that by dawn he is expected to invent economic policies swift enough to make the jump to capitalism before the government loses legitimacy. "Smoke was filling the room, and the bottle kept pouring," Sachs recalls. "I started weaving a story…I continued to improvise. I talked and talked, probably for another three or four hours. I was drenched in sweat. I do not know how many packs of cigarettes he smoked that night, each stub being crushed in an ever filling ashtray."

The image of a petit, sober, Jewish, Michigander parachuting behind the falling curtain to counsel heavy-drinking, anti-Soviet, industrial unionists is itself enduring. No less fascinating is the confession that improvisation figured as much in Poland's economic reform as any unifying theory. We see the economist as improvateur, more performance artist than scientist, and it's maybe a little discomfiting to absorb just how much the operators behind the scenes are winging it.

The memo Sachs co-wrote that night is historic—one of several momentous activities for which he will forever be known and judged. Despite an enviable career, few figures in the vortex of foreign policy and intellectual celebrity are more polarizing. A microgenre devoted to him swings between illustrations of a defender of the global poor and free market apologist. Versions of what he did (or did not do) in Bolivia, Poland, Russia, Harvard, and, for the last decade, Sub-Saharan Africa, appear almost quarterly, renewing a story that is both pyrrhic and fatigued.

One imagines, even hopes, that new books about Sachs will resolve these intrigues. Is he guilty of terrific errors in judgment, or is Jeffrey Sachs the guy everybody just loves to hate? After following Sachs to Sub-Saharan Africa on assignment for Vanity Fair, Munk spent six years writing what is trumpeted as a definitive account of the economist's poverty alleviation work—the Millennium Villages Project (MVP).

Munk is the daughter of Canada's most successful gold miner, one who, until his recent departure as CEO of Barrick Gold, oversaw numerous rich operations—some exceedingly controversial—in Africa. Writing that in her many years as a journalist she reported on the "1 percent"—a term not yet invented when she started the book—Munk reveals: "Suddenly it hit me: the one story that really mattered was the story of poverty." Around the time of her conversion, she accompanied Sachs to rural villages and presidential chambers in Uganda and Kenya, beginning an odyssey that led as far as, well, Uganda and Kenya.

A Millennium Village is a district-level development strategy, i.e. it's not a village. The idea is a series of interventions—development jargon for investments—that integrate the flow of goods and services among villages, and across district, regional, national, and international markets, obvious examples being roads or telecommunications. I went to a Village. There, I struggled with my expectation that I was entering a Disneyland of peasant life. Yet there is nothing in Sachs's method to suggest I should have anticipated this. His theory is that an annual per capita investment of $120 can prevent malaria and malnutrition, not make people affluent.

Although the MVP operates in 12 African countries with numerous spinoffs on the continent, Munk's reporting focuses on two districts, Ruhiira (Uganda) and Dertu (Kenya), and she relies on portraits of project coordinators and villagers from these sites as the canvas for criticizing Sachs. Arguably, a case can be made for not spreading oneself too thin. But if you opt for a picaresque book, it had better project the entire panorama.

Instead we endure verbatim retreads from Munk's original 2007 article about Sachs's shaving habits (missing the neck-whiskers) and huge head (it's not that big), and Mark Malloch Brown's description of Sachs as a "bully." Sachs comes off badly in some scenes, yelling at a rival in the business-class section of a plane, getting a chilly reception from World Bank bureaucrats. From these vignettes we learn he does not mingle well with bureaucrats (do you blame him?), and is strident.

Munk's aspiration to tell the stories of "Africans who live in extreme poverty…" and, above all tell "a story of hope," is admirable yet the book, as the title informs us, is more about Sachs than Africans. Meanwhile, there are discouraging summary judgments about "Africa," drawn mostly to demonstrate Sachs's errors. "Then again," she writes, "progress is relative in Africa," elsewhere concluding, "He'd spent more than $120 million on his experiment. For all that, however, he had misjudged the complex, shifting reality in the villages. Africa is not a laboratory: Africa is chaotic and messy and unpredictable."

In the chapter "Insha'Allah," Munk cites a passage from The End of Poverty, where he writes: "Virtually every society that was once poor has been castigated for being lazy and unworthy until its citizens became rich, at which point their new wealth was 'explained' by their industriousness…What look like immutable social values turn out to be highly malleable to economic circumstances and opportunities."

She contrasts this progressive ideal of mutable values with a chilling second-hand account of female circumcision in Kenya, that, while perhaps the best-written two pages of the book, is utterly beside the point. Her contention is that Sachs's vision of poverty eradication was sunk by his naïve faith in economic change—his idealism. She summarizes the view of an interlocutor in the village, a Sachs acolyte named Ahmed, by writing: "The people of Dertu, as far as he could tell, were in no hurry to embrace Western ideas of modernity." If applied globally, this conflation of religious rites with an incapacity for economic transformation would mark at least half of the world's population as too orthodox for economic development. What is more, it's unfair to Sachs's own views. Not two pages below the passage cited by Munk, Sachs writes: "Not all cultural values change so easily."

Finally, Munk makes little effort to illustrate and interpret the architecture of Sachs's organizations. "At the…head office in New York, so many staff members had quit or been replaced that I finally lost track," she writes. And: "By 2010 the Millennium Villages Project had become a cumbersome bureaucracy with hundreds of dependent employees. Was anyone prepared to smash the glass and pull the emergency cord?" These institutional politics are definitely "inside baseball," but organizational chaos, mismanagement of budgets, high turnover, nepotism, and inconsistent priorities are stories that deserve meticulous tracking. This is the world's most scrutinized international development project, putting Sachs in the midst of an often vicious fight with the aid establishment over means and ends of development assistance. Once you get past the "economist to the stars" nonsense, hate or love him, Jeffrey Sachs is a force who merits serious treatment.

Yet Amadou Niang and Belay Begashaw—the hands-on directors of the MVP's implementing organizations in Dakar and Nairobi—are quoted exactly once each. John Macarthur is referred to as Sachs's deputy, though the two parted ways more than a year before the book was published. Sachs's wife, Sonia Ehrlich, is referred to as a pediatrician rather than the director of the project's health unit. And how is employing hundreds of people bad?

Meanwhile, on the most recent scandal—a scrape with the academic journal The Lancet—Munk is silent. In the spring of 2012, four months before Munk's book was published, the MVP published a paper, with Sachs as an author, that was soon discredited by a methodological error inflating the project's effects on child mortality rates. Sachs conceded the error, dismissed the leader of his research department, and instituted an external review committee. To critics, though, the affair confirmed suspicions about the transparency and social-scientific integrity of data being gathered by Sachs's organization.

One thing that helped me appreciate the role Sachs plays in international affairs was a panel at the UN where the subject of land rights and reform arose, an area on which I had not heard him comment. He effectively said (I am paraphrasing from memory): Such conflicts may take a very long time to resolve; in the meantime the poor suffer and must be helped. Later, a panelist sarcastically suggested he was an "extreme pragmatist." "That's the nicest thing anybody ever called me," Sachs replied, half-jokingly.

Sachs's stance is, principally, one of allegiance with the global poor, whose chances for land rights and any other causes, he will argue, are improved by full stomachs and freedom from fever. One might like him to speak more forcibly about land and resource monopolization, which in countries relevant to his cause can be over 90 percent, but it's also unjust to accuse him of being reactionary: he is not opposing broad reform so much as performing his role as defender of the poor from within the establishment. Say it's extreme pragmatism, right or wrong, brilliant or boneheaded—say what you will, but one thing this philosophy of poverty can not be considered is idealistic. "Call it idealism, if you'd like, or faith," Munk writes.

Here Munk confuses exalted ideas with fanciful idealism, although truthfully the ideas are not even that exalted. Sachs is the latest in a line of centrists to advocate the 0.7 percent of GDP pledge initially proposed by Lester Pearson's commission over 40 years ago. An idealist would be demanding grand reform, resisting corporate financing, and railing that structural adjustment is not a win-win for industrial capital and the peasantry. This is not a revolutionist. He wants to run the World Bank not neutralize it.

If anything, a shortcoming at the center of the Villages—liberating people from extreme poverty with $120 per year—is excessive pragmatism. Proposing that a peasant in Africa needs the sum of my monthly phone charges to escape poverty is largely about discrediting the skepticism of the donor community. The game is to prove that such meager sums are effective and measurable, so that once the baseline is established everything can be "scaled up."

The intensity and perpetual traps of this game were displayed during the Lancet scandal. One preoccupation was the crooked numbers on which Sachs signed off. A second issue, though, was an argument that all his data are unreliable because Sachs did not establish "control villages." As this scandal unfolded, one newspaper story was accompanied by a photo of an African child having his head measured. Anyone who travels to the communities we are discussing understands how one's very presence there leads people to hope aid will follow. The notion of informing one community that villagers downriver will receive $120 while they will be just studied, is grotesque, while one needs only a vague sense of history to be appalled by how literally the donors are measuring the results of aid, paltry though it is.

Sachs has raised in the ballpark of $150 million. This is the cost of one Quentin Tarantino film. Whatever the flaws with his methodology, management, or math, and I believe Munk is correct on several issues, continental poverty cannot be eradicated for the cost of a movie production. Yet Munk's "gotcha" quest leads to condemnations that border on absurd. In one example, she criticizes the health center in Ruhiira for not having sufficient power to operate two incubators donated by General Electric. "For all GE's good intentions, there wasn't enough electricity in the health center to power the machines," she laments, without reflecting on the tragedy that the measure of a great corporation's generosity is two machines.

The Idealist will not be the last word on this topic. There will surely be more books added to the genre, and when they come, a valuable contribution would be a thorough survey of Sachs's published works. Neither Munk nor Naomi Klein before her in The Shock Doctrine cite any of Sachs's abundant publications prior to the popular breakthrough of his book, The End of Poverty, in 2005. Munk, for example, repeats the rub that Sachs was an advocate of neo-liberal privatization who, later, had an epiphany and became a defender of the poor. Yet in no time, one can find papers from the 1980s articulating views consistent with the ideas of a "mixed economy" he stresses today. Likewise, his policy briefs from the 1990s emphasize aid alongside currency stabilization. It is more complex than a banal conversion.

Intellectual rigor would also help unpack whether there is an unresolved dissonance between Sachs's approaches to macroeconomics and local development. A dilemma that struck me in my limited experience at a Millennium Village was how fragile local interventions are in, say, smallholder oil palm or cacao farms, set against powerful macroeconomic or ecological trends. In Ghana, for instance, farms supported by the project were rapidly being expropriated by a new and aggressive class of gold miners, while in Mali climate change and war overwhelmed the intervention, as they did all international aid in the north of that country.

I can't help but wonder about the sanity of small-scale interventions in places where local development and macroeconomic policy may be mutually exclusive. When the policy is to expand foreign direct investment in industrial resource extraction and agriculture—investments that routinely create poverty and displace peasant economies—is there not a point where development projects become like rearranging the furniture in a prison cell?

This is a predicament for the entire development sector, not only Sachs. Originally, international aid was a philosophy of equality and "general responsibility for the welfare of all peoples," as the UN's first director-general for economic development, Hugh Keenleyside, called it. More than ever, aid is wedded to private "partnerships," a reality that transforms overseas development from a division of foreign policy to trickle-down corporate philanthropy. Sachs, too, relies on these partnerships to finance the Millennium Villages. A pragmatist might say he has to: it's the only way to raise enough money to help people. An idealist would call this a shortcut to social perfection—a bargain whose outcome is a change to the face of the global economy, but not its inner structure and existence.

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