The Rise of the African Development Confessional?

AiW guest James Smith.

Nina Munk’s The Idealist: Jeffery Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty (Random House) isn’t a book only about Jeffery Sachs. It’s a book about the world as we would like it to be, an uncomfortable mix of our dreams, and our disappointments. It traces the optimism of development – of aid – as a force that can shape communities, societies, entire countries, into a facsimile of a vision of the future. It’s a story of unproblematic emulation, some emancipation, and quite a bit of Empire.


More than that it’s a story of the slow burn of realisation, as Munk sees the local crumbling of a global project, and in the process loses some of her idealism regarding Jeff Sachs. There is no doubt that Sachs is a force of nature. One of the world’s leading development economists, he has played a pivotal role in shaping the architecture of development: the international institutions, liberal values and macroeconomic levers that would shape tracts of the ‘less developed’ world, and especially Africa. His prescription of economic ‘adjustment’ of cutting the costs of government, balancing books and promoting growth were implemented firstly in Eastern Europe and latterly across swathes of Africa. The results were mixed, to put it mildly, and when they were particularly patchy, as in Poland in the late 80s, they were dismissed as the consequences of having not fully bought into the project, of not having ‘adjusted’ enough. It was a failure of implementation, not of vision. This macroscopic, macroeconomic view of development has been much critiqued, but yet in many respects ‘adjustment’ is still the first-line treatment for economic failure.

Witness Greece. The problem with much aid and intervention is that there is no retrospect, only prospect.

And there is no doubt that Jeff Sachs was a prospect. PhD, professorship and power and influence followed in quick succession. He has worked tirelessly for decades to help the world’s poor, and relentlessly to remind those lucky enough not to be poor that they were not only lucky, but also responsible. And one of the great attractions of Sachs’ vision was that he sold an easy responsibility. All it would take was money, a lot of money admittedly, but not so much in the greater scheme of things: doing without the odd nuclear submarine or two. This money would feed largely technocratic solutions: infrastructure, clinics, schools. At some point Sachs had an epiphany when directly confronted by extreme poverty (documented in his autobiography), moving swiftly from the macro of state austerity and fiscal responsibility to the micro of packages of direct intervention. 41G004AZMJL

This isn’t really explored in depth in the Idealist, nor is the problematisation of responsibility, namely who accepts it and what are the implications of doing so that will inevitably follow. I will come back to that.

Munk has written an unusual book in some ways. It is just about the only major development biography. I suppose development practitioners are just not famous enough. There are many autobiographical accounts of development, notably Sachs’ own The End of Poverty (Penguin, 2005), which rehearses much of what Munk goes on to expose in her book. Rather less optimistically, Paul Theroux’s  (2002) transcribes his own prejudices of his youth as a Peace Corps volunteer onto every development practitioner he meets, or doesn’t meet because they won’t stop to give him a lift. 9780140281118

There are some interesting fictionalised memoirs, Tony D’Souza’s Whiteman (Portobello, 2005) is compelling and rings true. There are some brilliant academic texts, Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden (Penguin, 2006), Scott’s Seeing Like a State (Yale, 1999), Ferguson’s Anti-Politics Machine (Minnesota, 1994) or Mosse’s Cultivating Development (Pluto, 2006), any or all of which explain why ideas like Millennium Villages gain momentum much better than I can here. Novels about development, and films, are generally best avoided.   

The embodiment of Sach’s technocratic, interventionalist philosophy forms the central narrative of Munk’s book. In 2006, Sachs launched the Millennium Villages Project, an African living laboratory of development. A dozen villages in 10 African countries were selected to be pilot ‘Millennium Villages’. The vision was to eliminate poverty in these villages one intervention at a time, clinic by clinic, vaccine by vaccine, mosquito net by mosquito net. The initial cost was upwards of $10 million per village, raised solely by Sachs’ enthusiasm and belief, matched by generous benefaction: $50 million alone from George Soros. Once each village had demonstrated how packages of interventions not only eliminated poverty, but segued into sustainability, the programme would inevitably roll across Africa, point proved.

Munk dubbed the Project a sort of “MTV…. Extreme Village Makeover”. Slick, but invariably superficial, and ultimately a little embarrassing. Munk invested time in repeatedly visiting two of the Project’s villages, Dertu in northern Kenya and Ruhiira in southwestern Uganda. In true experimental style each of the 12 villages demonstrated different dimensions of hopelessness, too dry, too far away, too mosquito-infested, too politically unstable. What she found was no water, no markets, and indifferent politicians. These are not in themselves unexpected occurrences. My own doctoral thesis is replete with de rigueur photographs of failed boreholes along the Botswana border.Whiteman Tony D'Souza

The problem was the compound nature of the failures. In Ruhiira, water pumps failed rendering boreholes useless, attempts to pipe water proved fruitless, generous donations of pipework from the US were difficult to transport there and when they did, they did not connect up to their African equivalents, donkeys were too exhausted to carry water up and down hillsides. Efforts to modernise agriculture improved yields but left unmarketable surpluses, there was no market and never had been a prospect of a market. Endless cost overruns made alternatives difficult to implement. The project managers worked tirelessly, to formulate business plans, to engage with the villagers, to solve endless problems, but to no avail.

Towards the end of the book there is a sense of dreams fraying around the edges, in relation to Dertu of increasingly urgent requests to reformulate ‘interventions’ as ‘enterprises’, of the drafting of business plans for whom there is no investor, of dreaming up ‘value-added’ products for far off markets, of development for which there can be no sustainability. These external requests become increasingly distant and erratic, while responsibility seems to become inevitably local.

Sachs comes across as relatively unbowed if increasingly agitated, briskly searching for new investment, and indeed the Millennium Village Project lingers to this day. There are more villages now, and more investors, although not quite of the same scale as before. The Project rhetoric has been significantly scaled back. And really, it is difficult to say the Villages were a complete failure. There was nothing to compare them to, no control for evaluation. There is no doubt that the lives of villagers were improved, more children went to school, more families had access to clinics, and agricultural productivity was enhanced. Yet, these are trends that one could see across Africa. There was no means to evaluate the true impact of the massive effort and investment in Millennium Villages, against the general continental trend. One is left only with the certainty that any sustainable development will be the coupling of political freedom with the growth of local, bottom-up economic activity. The Millennium Villages occupy a space in between, useful, but not ubiquitous.

The White Man's Burder

So evidence of success is thin, but evidence is not so important if one simply believes. Munk leaves us with the abiding impression that Jeff Sachs is not a man to waste time reflecting on the past, instead he looks to the next, bigger challenge. This brings me back to the issue of responsibility – and particularly its divisibility. We might think in terms of easy responsibility, the policy idea, the online donation, the glib proclamation, the unfulfilled promise, as only for the West. Likewise, deep responsibility, the pressures of project implementation, the fallout of the halving of state expenditure, of facing impossible household decisions about who eats or receives medicine and who does not, of self-sacrifice, is for ‘the rest’. The former cannot fix the latter, and should not dictate to it.

It seems to me that we need to accept a more fluid notion of responsibility. If we create a policy idea then we are at least in part responsible for its implementation and implications. Its failure is ours. If we are lucky enough to be able to afford to make a donation, we should reflect on the historical trajectory that gave us that possibility. History is important, and we need to draw on the insight of retrospect if we are to understand underdevelopment and development. Underdevelopment is not the absence of a Millennium Village Project, it’s the deeply historical interplay between politics, power, resources and opportunity. That’s not to a say a Millennium Village Project might not be welcome, but it must be backed up with an engagement with the roots of underdevelopment. Deep responsibility beckons.

One inevitable theme in Munk’s book is the need to temper hubris with humility. A degree of introspection is good, even if one has set out to do nothing less than change the world. It would be very easy to see Munk’s book as a story of Sachs alone, as a parable of one man’s hubris, as a confession by proxy. Sachs could bring his undoubted talents to achieve what he did because his solutions are the ones we want, the easy ones. Development offers solutions to seemingly intractable problems, aid offers political leverage, there are idealists who want to contribute to a better world, interventions are certainly necessary and moral, and the people most in need do not have the power to negotiate what they want.

It is easy to slip into talking of a vague ‘we’ regarding our role in all this. If Sachs’ story is the story of trying to make the modern world it’s a story of all of us, politician, aid worker, entrepreneur, citizen: north and south, to a greater or lesser extent. It’s a story of embracing the realities of deep responsibility and rejecting the seductive power of easy answers.

Extracts from Nina Munk’s book are available at The Huffington Post.


James is Professor of African and Development Studies james profileand Assistant Principal of Global Development at the University of Edinburgh. He has studied, worked and lurked in (mainly South) Africa for almost 20 years, most recently on things like tsetse flies, sleeping sickness and alternative forms of energy. His publications – include Science, Technology and Development and Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk (both Zed Books).


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8 replies

  1. In response to your comment: “It is just about the only major development biography” I would highly recommend you look at Jeremy Adelman’s recent biography of Albert Hirschmann. The biography has gotten fantastic reviews. Hirschmann’s work has immensely influenced modern development theory and practice, but he is less known in popular discussions. Here is a fantastic review by Cass Sunstein:

  2. Nice article James… reminds me of one of the Tom Moloney classes on the role of celebrity in development with their emotive and simplyifying narratives to extract revenue and publicise the issue. Maybe we need wrist bands for the next G8 to say: “End reductionism now!”

  3. Nice review – and pleasingly scathing on Sachs: “evidence is not so important if one simply believes” – ouch! Sachs has long had a reputation for professional and inter-personal arrogance, so on one level, a hatchet job is hard to resist. It’s like watching the comeuppance of a slimy politician. Elsewhere, Sachs’ longtime sparring partner Bill Easterly has certainly enjoyed himself:

    But it’s also good to hear more about the importance of responsibility and evidence, issues that go far beyond one man’s hubris.

  4. An interesting review thank you James. I guess an overall observation is that of the persistent lack of voices from the South in continuing discourses of development… I guess some credit should be given to Jeff as at least his edited volumes open up the floor a little. In response I particularly like your idea of a fluid notion of responsibility and the historical context. It may bring on some much needs ‘reflexion’, which is usually missing in these types of discussions.

  5. Great review. Well written and reflexive! Particularly enjoyed your critique of (neo)liberalism, and your references to responsibility and evidence. Historical context is so important when implementing policies; which seems so obvious, but needs constant reminding. Thank you for that

  6. So much in James Smith’s review to cogitate over – have been revisiting this in the light of @AfricaInWords’ anniversary. By foregrounding the sub-genre of ‘ the development confessional’, he raises all sorts of questions. Ethics is at the heart of these questions, while pragmatics could be said to pull at their margins.

    Smith underlines the ‘deeply historical interplay between politics, power, resources and opportunity’ which has resulted in what we consider ‘underdevelopment’. History is the shadow cast over the poor regions of the earth in which so many are complicit, in which we in the West are profoundly complicit. In development responses, he calls for this retrospective to be given due attention – ‘deep responsibility’.

    After reading Smith’s in-depth piece, it struck me as a non-expert, that perhaps there is something of a continuum in the way ‘development’ can be apprehended. If one pole represents Top-Down Intervention, then the other represents Reflection at a Distance given the damage and fall-outs many interventions have had. In some tangential way, if you will permit, these poles seem reminiscent of the extremes in approaches taken by monastic orders. A multitude of factors could push one towards either pole in ‘trying to do the right thing’.

    But perhaps a key question when it comes to ‘development’, is not so much whether To Do, Or Not To Do, but the question of How. That ‘How’ necessarily involves who is involved and staking claims, who speaks to the issues, what is worked out in the midst of complexity. We also ask: how does ‘development’ move away from being a project of the West? And how do we plumb what ‘deep responsibility’ means for us all, in a way that is provocatively reflective, meaningfully pro-active?


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