Can a Vision Save Africa?

The Episcopal Church, and many of its dioceses and congregations, have made a very serious commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, which is a United Nations-backed effort to end extreme world poverty. In yesterday’s New York Times, business columnist Joe Nocera’s Saturday column (subscription required) is devoted to asking the tough question–can the MDG vision be achieved?

The column presents the competing views of Dr. Jeffrey Sachs (the leading economic power behind the MDGs) and his critics:

More than anything else — more even than the path-breaking work of the Gates Foundation — it has been Mr. Sachs’s ability to sell his vision that has caused wealthy philanthropists and large corporations to get behind the causes of eradicating malaria and ending poverty in Africa. He’s the reason George Soros gave $50 million to Millennium Promise, and why the organization has been able to raise over $100 million in its short life.

But that same vision, which is inexorably linked to malaria, but is much larger than that, has caused some mainstream economists to say that while Mr. Sachs means well, he is peddling a dream that will always be just that: a dream. “I think he is improving the lives of many people,” said Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University (and a contributor to The New York Times). “But what he is doing is much oversold.” Mr. Cowen does not believe that Mr. Sachs’s work in Africa will endure.

The question that confronts us this morning is, Who is going to turn out to be right?

. . .

Although Mr. Sachs insists that he has always been consistent in his approach — “I try to design strategies appropriate to the circumstances,” he said — most other people think his Africa strategy is radically different from anything he’s done before. Mainly, he says he believes that the West needs to spend huge sums of money to control disease, improve farming, create better schools and build infrastructure in Africa. And if that can be done, he believes, economic growth, and all the good things that flow from it, will become Africa’s lot at last.

Though he is a prodigious fund-raiser, even Jeffrey Sachs can’t wave his magic wand and gather the hundreds of billions of dollars it would take to build all the roads and schools and farms and hospitals that Africa so desperately needs. So what he has done instead is to pick poor rural villages — he’s up to 79 by now — in countries with relatively stable governments, and find corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals who will adopt them to the tune of $300,000 a year for five years.

There is no question that the efforts of Millennium Promise are making a difference in those villages. The schools are drastically better, and thanks to a new lunch program, with the grain provided by the village’s own farmers, students are eating better. Each village is given bed nets coated with insecticide, which are the best way to prevent malaria, and a Novartis medicine, Coartem, which has to be taken within a day or so of malarial symptoms. Cases of malaria have dropped significantly. Mr. Sachs’s agronomists at the Earth Institute, which he runs at Columbia, create seed that can adapt to the village’s usually arid soil, and they give all the farmers fertilizer. Sure enough, the crop yield has increased, in many cases, by four to five times.

That is what Mr. Cowen means when he says that Mr. Sachs is improving people’s lives. Plainly, he is. But those efforts, laudable though they are, will not eradicate malaria or reduce African poverty in any serious way. The real question is how to turn Mr. Sachs’s efforts into more than just a pilot program that temporarily helps a bunch of villages. How will it transform all of Africa?

Ultimately, Millennium Promise is hoping that the governments of these countries will pick up where the Fortune 500 companies leave off. But given Africa’s history, that is one serious leap of faith. “He doesn’t have a coherent theory by which his model can scale up,” Mr. Cowen told me.

Read it all.

So who is correct, Sachs or Cowen? Can the Millennium Villages be “scaled up”? And even if Sachs is ultimately wrong, isn’t the effort worthwhile? It certainly has been for the 79 Millennium Villages he has funded so far. And, the pessimists have proven wrong about development in other regions of the world. After all, who would have predicted in 1975 that Moaist China would be where it is today?

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