It's the Politics, Stupid: What Jeffrey Sachs' Development Work Is Missing

The founder of the Millenium Villages Project espouses a geographically deterministic view of African conflict.

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Columbia professor and Millennium Villages Project founder Jeffrey Sachs speaks at a 2007 press conference at Columbia. (Chip East/Reuters)

Is it really so horrible if Jeffrey Sachs might be the world's most important economist? The possibility was raised when CNN anchor Isha Sesay introduced the bestselling author and Columbia University professor during a panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution's African Growth Initiative (an event in which Atlantic contributor and Morehouse College professor Laura Seay also participated). Sachs, unlike so many economists who are also high-profile public intellectuals, isn't a doom-and-gloom type. As head of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), he is the driving force behind a U.N.-affiliated program aimed at making millions of people's lives better. He has succeeded in bringing development economics to a broad popular audience -- and, through his relationships with world leaders and bilateral institutions, in making development a highly-visible plank of the international community's agenda. Compared to say, Paul Krugman, Sachs is an uplifting figure.

But the Brookings event was a reminder of the great man's myriad blind spots. Last summer's controversy over an MVP-authored paper in The Lancet, which made the now-debunked claim that the program was successful at lowering infant mortality rates, raised questions about the academic rigor of the project's self-monitoring -- which quickly morphed into questions about whether Sachs's concept of "integrated rural development" even worked at all. Sachs's problems go beyond just methodology. At Brookings, he revealed how his view towards development filters out one of the most difficult issues in the field: the relationship between lasting improvements in quality of life, and effective and representative governance.

It's a gross over-simplification to say that Sachs sees no relationship between governance and development. "Big country interests make a mess of local governments," Sachs said, in reference to the role of foreign oil and mining companies in Africa. "They're a cause of major instability in resource management." He also decried Chinese companies' use of tax havens in the Caribbean, which let them basically launder profits made in the continent. Sachs said that a provision under the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill requiring unprecedented transparency among American extractive companies who do business in Africa will have a positive effect on the continent -- in essence, Africa will improve so long as the U.S. and the international community as a whole upgrades its own quality of governance.

It's hard to disagree with this. But what about governance in Africa itself? It's here that Sachs gets into trouble. Take, for instance, his explanation for two of Africa's most worrying conflicts: the ongoing standoff over al Qaeda affiliate Ansar Dine's control of Northern Mali, and the international effort to rebuild Somalia, large areas of which were once under the control of the al Shabaab terrorist group. "The drylands are aflame in violence and environmentally," Sachs told the audience. "Both the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, in my opinion, are conflicts of hunger, famine, poverty, demographic pressures. They get translated through politics. They become seedbeds of extremism. They become open opportunities for plunder, as happened in northern Mali."

Sachs then took his environmentally and geographically-deterministic view of African conflict even further. "In my mind, it's no accident that from Senegal to Afghanistan, that belt of more than 10,000 miles is really a belt of a lot of conflict. It's a belt of a lot of hunger and the worst poverty in the world, and unless we have a development model that goes along with the politics and security we'll never resolve these conflict conditions."

Before getting into the problems with this, it's worth pointing out that there are other areas in which Sachs downplays or even totally disregards politics. For instance, during his talk at Brookings, Sachs made it abundantly clear that he recognizes that the most momentous changes in international development don't come from NGOs or foreign donor governments. A true breakthrough, like the recent explosion of cell phone and information technology access which Sachs rightly identified as a watershed in African development, cannot be affected by altruistic outsiders -- it's driven by local demand, local capital, and the initiative and investment of private actors that see a potential self-interest in catering to African consumers. Sachs said he hopes that the market forces that led to the cell phone revolution also yield improvements in infrastructure and credit access. The "holy grail" of African development, Sachs said, was replicating the cell phone boom in "two other areas: one is electricity. Could we get a tipping point through pre-pay and other systems to have really a revolution of electrification on a market basis? And could we get a revolution in agricultural seasonal financing on a market basis?"

The Millennium Villages Project, Sachs's flagship endeavor, is predicated on the transformative potential of aggressive and integrated outside intervention. He nevertheless understands that development is driven by macro-level factors that no single individual can control.

But Sachs's trust in both integrated rural development and in market and technology-driven development improvements are equally untroubled by issues of governance. The spread of IT access isn't a market phenomenon alone: a company capable of building a cell phone tower or an internet network is less likely to invest in a country wracked with violence or a predatory state structure. And the Millennium Villages Project assumes that village-level development can trickle upward. The project's own literature sells the MVP as being both holistic and sustainable, and Sachs claims that the project's benefits can serve as "a leading-edge for national programs to achieve the Millennium Development Goals."

The expectation that the project will simply lead to trickle-up improvements in governance can feed a cynical anti-politics. If you believe your intervention will eventually bring about widespread and permanent improvements in most aspects of life -- an assertion which has the benefit for non-disprovability, at this point in the project -- then the current political order becomes far less of an issue. Thus, Sachs has praised and cozied up to leaders like Paul Kagame of Rwanda (who, along with Sachs, is a member of the Millennium Development Goals advocacy group) and the late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, visionaries as far as African development is concerned -- but disasters in the area of human rights and, in Kagame's case, regional security .

Zenawi -- who Sachs once wrote was part of "Africa's generation of new democratic leaders that are pointing the way" -- is a particularly interesting example of the costs of focusing on development at the expense of governance. Alex de Waal, a Tufts University professor who had an over 20-year long relationship with Zenawi, recently reflected on the late leader's perhaps-revolutionary theory of the "democratic development state," a model under which a benign autocrat weeds out the culture of rent-seeking and graft in order to allow the state to evenly and fairly distribute the benefits of international development assistance -- with an eye towards eventually eliminating the need for the necessary evils of autocracy and aid. Zenawi was one of the most effective and dynamic leaders in modern African history, and he gave more serious thought to the challenges of African development than even some of the best-intentioned donors. But Zenawi was not a democrat, and he did things like persecute opposition journalists,strictly regulate NGOs, and forcibly resettled troublesome populations. Zenawi's "democratic development state" model came at the expense of political dynamism and representative government -- as well as basic freedoms.

Sachs's "drylands belt" theory also sidesteps issues of governance. No one would dispute that Mali is dry, landlocked and poor. But surely the country's misery has something to do with the failures of leadership in Bamako -- with both the corrupt, ineffectual and widely-despised government of Amadou Toumani Toure, which was forced out in a military coup in March of 2012, and the incompetent junta that followed it, a cadre that continues to try the patience of all of the country's potential partners while allowing much of the north to fall under Islamist control. Mali is in its current mess not because of where or what it is, but because it's the kind of country that could be taken over by a small gang of junior officers and a television signal. And what's to blame for that? Is it the stagnation of the country's institutions during Toure's rule? Is it an imbalance in civilian-military relations, possibly though unintentionally exacerbated by the American training that some of the coup's leaders received? Is it through the Bamako's government's failure to deal with the Taureg issue in the north, and with long-standing grievances that erupted when small arms and mercenaries returning from Libya poured into northern Mali after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi's regime?

It's complicated. These issues are not easy to deal with, and there's no quick policy fix for them. Sachs's geographic determinism, like his belief in the overwhelming power of technology and targeted, integrated development, side-step many of them. There is no such thing as a 10,000 mile "drylands belt" of misery. But there is a constellation of weak states requiring the kind of institution-building and political transformation that, for reasons of either theory or expediency, Sachsian views of development do not seem to care that much about.