In our global community of development sector workers, there is little agreement on what works and what does not (so much so that it has been quite a struggle even to persuade people to care about what works and what does not!). One of the big bang ideas in this sector is the Millennium Villages Project – brainchild of Jeffrey Sachs, the ‘Great Professor’ from Columbia. A true article of faith, if ever there was one!
In a review by Angus Deaton of a recent book by Nina Munk, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, he offers quite a scathing critique:
Modern technology, with its models and manuals, has an irresistible fascination for social engineers, and has done so for most of the past century. New knowledge and new ways of doing things have indeed been the source of much of human progress. Yet the schemes of the planners have rarely brought the improvement in the human condition that their well-intentioned architects had hoped for, and have often brought disaster. Thousands of years of painstakingly accumulated local knowledge cannot be incorporated into such plans. Nor can technocratic methods make up for bad politics, or provide a substitute for the two-way contract between politicians and people that provides public goods in exchange for taxes and that underpins development. Indeed, and although Munk does not emphasise it as do Scott and Ferguson, the ultimate beneficiaries of such schemes are likely to be the local politicians who, one way or another, by extracting project funds, or by exploiting the resultant chaos, strengthen their own positions at the expense of those the schemes were intended to benefit.The Millennium Villages come with none of the coercion that accompanied the rural development projects of Stalin or of Nyerere, let alone the murderous horrors of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. For that we should be grateful. Yet the crying shame is that while the hubris came from Sachs, the nemesis came to the villagers.