Log out
My profile and settings
My bookmarks
Comment history
Please complete your account verification. Resend verification email.
today
This verification token has expired.
today
Your email address has been verified. Update my profile.
today
Your account has been deactivated. Sign in to re-activate your account.
today
View all newsletters in the newsletter archive
today
You are now unsubscribed from receiving emails.
today
Sorry, we were unable to unsubscribe you at this time.
today
0
0
Back to profile
Comment Items
You have not left any comments yet.
title
in reply to
name
description
Saved Posts
You haven’t bookmarked any posts yet.
“Melinda and I often get asked how to make a difference in the world. A great way is to volunteer.”
read post
Become a Gates Notes Insider
Sign up
Personal Information
Title
Mr
Mrs
Ms
Miss
Mx
Dr
Cancel
Save
This email is already registered
Cancel
Save
Please verify email address. Click verification link sent to this email address or resend verification email.
Cancel
Save
Address
Cancel
Save
Email and Notification Settings
Send me updates from Bill Gates
You must provide an email
On
Off
Send me Gates Notes survey emails
On
Off
Send me the weekly Top of Mind newsletter
On
Off
Email me comment notifications
On
Off
On-screen comment notifications
On
Off
Interests
Select interests to personalize your profile and experience on Gates Notes.
Saving Lives
Energy Innovation
Improving Education
Alzheimer's
Philanthropy
Book Reviews
About Bill Gates
Account Deactivation
Click the link below to begin the account deactivation process.
If you would like to permanently delete your Gates Notes account and remove it’s content, please send us a request here.
A Squeaky Wheel
A cautionary tale from Africa
What we can learn from Jeffrey Sachs’s ambitious project in Africa.
|
0

Bono calls the economist Jeffrey Sachs “the squeaky wheel that roars.” To me, Sachs is the Bono of economics—a guy with impressive intelligence, passion, and powers of persuasion who is devoting his gifts to speaking up for the poorest people on the planet. So it was no surprise to me that a journalist would find Sachs to be a compelling central character for a book—and a good way to draw readers into the potentially dry subject of international development.

In The Idealist, Vanity Fair writer Nina Munk draws a nuanced portrait of Sachs and his Millennium Villages Project (MVP)—a $120 million demonstration project intended to show the world that it’s possible to lift African villages out of poverty through a massive infusion of targeted assistance. It would have been easy, and perhaps more marketable, for Munk to draw a caricature, overly accentuating Sachs’s negative qualities at the expense of his great gifts. But she doesn’t. Munk spent six years researching the book, getting to know Sachs well and living for extended periods in two of the 15 Millennium Villages. She clearly appreciates the importance and difficulty of what Sachs and his team are attempting to do.

Unlike most books about international development, Munk’s book is very readable and not long (260 pages). I’ve told everyone at our foundation that I think it is worth taking the time to read it. It’s a valuable—and, at times, heartbreaking—cautionary tale. While some of the Millennium Villages have succeeded in helping families improve their health and incomes, Munk concludes that the two villages she spent the most time studying­—Dertu, Kenya and Ruhiira, Uganda—have so far not lived up to Sachs’s vision.

Sachs did come to the foundation, asking us to support the Millennium Villages. His pitch was intriguing. He was picking a small handful of villages to be the focus of intense interventions in health, education, and agriculture—all at once. His hypothesis was that these interventions would be so synergistic that they would start a virtuous upward cycle and lift the villages out of poverty for good. He felt that if you focus just on fertilizer without also addressing health, or if you just go in and provide vaccinations without doing anything to help improve education, then progress won’t be sustained without an endless supply of aid.

My colleagues and I had a number of concerns about Sachs’s approach. We questioned his assumptions about how quickly the gains would materialize, what would happen when the MVP funding was phased out, how much governments would contribute to offset the high per-person costs, and how feasible it was to measure progress (given the likelihood that people from the surrounding area would stream into their villages once the MVP aid started flowing). So we decided not to invest in the MVP directly. Instead we funded his interdisciplinary work at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, because we felt it was invaluable to have him focused on the needs of poor countries.

Based on what Munk reports about the MVP, I’m not about to throw stones. We have many projects of our own that have come up short. It’s hard to deliver effective solutions, even when you plan for every potential contingency and unintended consequence. There is a natural tendency in almost any kind of investment—business, philanthropic, or otherwise—to double down in the face of difficulty. I’ve done it, and I think most other people have too. 

So what went wrong? For one thing, the villages that Sachs picked experienced all kinds of problems—from drought to political unrest. For another, the MVP began with an idealistic “Field of Dreams” approach. MVP leaders encouraged farmers to switch to a series of new crops that were in demand in richer countries—and experts on the ground did a good job of helping farmers to produce good crop yields by using fertilizer, irrigation, and better seeds. But the MVP didn’t simultaneously invest in developing markets for these crops. According to Munk, “Pineapple couldn’t be exported after all, because the cost of transport was far too high. There was no market for ginger, apparently. And despite some early interest from buyers in Japan, no one wanted banana flour.” The farmers grew the crops, but the buyers didn’t come.

Of course, Sachs knows that it’s critical to understand market dynamics; he’s one of the world’s smartest economists. But in the villages Munk profiled, Sachs seems to be wearing blinders.

Warren Buffett likes to say, “The rear-view mirror is always clearer than the windshield.” Through that rear-view mirror, we can see that the project didn’t have an economic model that could sustain successes once the MVP dollars ran out. All of the interventions involved—health, agriculture, infrastructure, education, and business seed money—make sense if carried out carefully, over time. But I am surprised by how little Sachs dug into country budgets and that he didn’t work to convince governments to commit to additional taxation to fund more of these interventions domestically. Given his background, he surely excels in that area.

Through the rear-view mirror, we can also see that many of Sachs’s ideas have proved to be exactly right. Munk details his 2007 fight with international aid donors who were refusing to distribute insecticide-treated bed nets for free because they favored a market-based approach where people would pay a small amount for each net. To put it mildly, Sachs didn’t make any friends in the process of advancing his case for free bed nets. Through increasingly ruthless tirades, he wound up alienating potential allies who want to defeat malaria just as badly as he does. But history will show that Sachs was absolutely right. Since then, we’ve seen that the free model has allowed for much broader distribution of bed nets—and much greater reductions in malaria—than market models.

In the end, I hope poverty fighters will not let what they read in this book stop them from investing and taking risks. In the world of venture capital, a success rate of 30 percent is considered a great track record. In the world of international development, critics hold up every misstep as proof that aid is like throwing money down a rat hole. When you’re trying to do something as hard as fighting poverty and disease, you will never achieve anything meaningful if you’re afraid to make mistakes.

I greatly admire Sachs for putting his ideas and reputation on the line. After all, he could have a good life doing nothing more than teaching two classes a semester and pumping out armchair advice in academic journals. But that’s not his style. He rolls up his sleeves. He puts his theories into action. He drives himself as hard as anyone I know.

I have no doubt that Sachs, like all relentless thinkers and doers, will come back with stronger ideas and approaches. Sachs will always be a squeaky wheel that roars. And the world will be a better place for it.

Read this next
NEXT
Comments
posting ...
Please verify your email in order to make comments. Click here to resend verification email
Sorry, duplicate comments are not allowed. 
Sorry, that HTML is not allowed. 
Sorry, something went wrong. 
In order to comment you must be a Gates Notes Insider. Please sign up or log in to continue. 
Be the first to leave a comment.
Comment Locked
Comments more than 2 months old are locked. For more information, contact us.
Report
Delete Comment?
Deleting this comment will remove replies to this comment by you and others as well. This action cannot be undone.
Delete Comment
Why do you want to report this comment?
It's annoying or not interesting
It's abusive and/or vulgar
It's spam
Report Comment
Your report has been submitted.
Close
Save
Cancel
Thanks for visiting the Gates Notes. We'd like your feedback.
Become a Gates Notes Insider
Join the Gates Notes community to access exclusive content, comment on stories, participate in giveaways, and more.
SIGN UP
Already joined?
Log in
Logout:


Become a Gates Notes Insider
Become a Gates Notes Insider
Join the Gates Notes community to get regular updates from Bill on key topics like global health and climate change, to access exclusive content, comment on stories, participate in giveaways, and more.
Already joined? Log in
LOG IN
SIGN UP
Use your social account:
Or sign up with email:
Title
Mr
Mrs
Ms
Miss
Mx
Dr
This email is already registered. Enter a new email, try signing in or retrieve your password
Why are we collecting this information? Gates Notes may send a welcome note or other exclusive Insider mail from time to time. Additionally, some campaigns and content may only be available to users in certain areas. Gates Notes will never share and distribute your information with external parties.
Bill may send you a welcome note or other exclusive Insider mail from time to time. We will never share your information.
Sign up
We will never share or spam your email address. For more information see our Sign Up FAQ. By clicking "Sign Up" you agree to the Gates Notes Terms of Use / Privacy Policy.
Street address
City
postal_town
State Zip code
administrative_area_level_2
Country
Data
Gates Notes Insider Sign Up FAQ

Q. How do I create a Gates Notes account?

A. There are three ways you can create a Gates Notes account:

  • Sign up with Facebook. We’ll never post to your Facebook account without your permission.
  • Sign up with Twitter. We’ll never post to your Twitter account without your permission.
  • Sign up with your email. Enter your email address during sign up. We’ll email you a link for verification.

Q. Will you ever post to my Facebook or Twitter accounts without my permission?

A. No, never.

Q. How do I sign up to receive email communications from my Gates Notes account?

A. In Account Settings, click the toggle switch next to “Send me updates from Bill Gates.”

Q. How will you use the Interests I select in Account Settings?

A. We will use them to choose the Suggested Reads that appear on your profile page.

BACK
Forgot your password?
Enter the email you used to sign up and a reset password link will be sent to you.
This email is already registered. Enter a new email, try signing in or retrieve your password
Reset Password
Reset your password.
Set New Password
Your password has been reset. Please continue to the log in page.
Log in
Get emails from Bill Gates
Send me updates from Bill Gates
You must provide an email
On
Off
Email me comment notifications
On
Off
On-screen comment notifications
On
Off
This email is already registered
Finish
We will never share or spam your email address. For more information see our Sign up FAQ. By clicking "Continue" you agree to the Gates Notes Terms of Use / Privacy Policy.
You're in!
You're in!
Please check your email and click the link provided to verify your account.
Didn't get an email from us? Resend verification email
Upload a profile picture
Choose image to upload
Uploading...
Uh Oh!
The image you are trying to upload is either too big or is an unacceptable format. Please upload a .jpg or .png image that is under 25MB.
Ok
Title
Mr
Mrs
Ms
Miss
Mx
Dr
Cancel
Save
This email is already registered
Cancel
Save
Please verify email address. Click verification link sent to this email address or resend verification email.
Email and notification settings
Send me updates from Bill Gates
You must provide an email
On
Off
Email me comment notifications
On
Off
On-screen comment notifications
On
Off
Select your interests
Saving Lives
Energy Innovation
Improving Education
Alzheimer's
Philanthropy
Book Reviews
About Bill Gates
Finish
Confirm Account Deactivation
Are you sure you want to deactivate your account?
Deactivating your account will unsubscribe you from Gates Notes emails, and will remove your profile and account information from public view on the Gates Notes. Please allow for 24 hours for the deactivation to fully process. You can sign back in at any time to reactivate your account and restore its content.
Deactivate My Acccount
Go Back
Your Gates Notes account has been deactivated.
Come back anytime.
Welcome back
In order to unsubscribe you will need to sign-in to your Gates Notes Insider account
Once signed in just go to your Account Settings page and set your subscription options as desired.
Sign In
Request account deletion
We’re sorry to see you go. Your request may take a few days to process; we want to double check things before hitting the big red button. Requesting an account deletion will permanently remove all of your profile content. If you’ve changed your mind about deleting your account, you can always hit cancel and deactivate instead.
Submit
Cancel
Thank You! Your request has been sent