When ‘Fighters of Poverty’ get it wrong

Taye Negussie (PhD)

 In a recent piece to Project Syndicate, ‘Why Jeffrey Sachs Matters’, the renowned Microsoft founder Bill Gates, reacted disapprovingly to Bonnos’s calling of the noted economist Jeffrey Sachs  “the squeaky wheel that roars” and Nina Munk’s negative appraisal of Sachs’s brain-child, the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in her book The Idealist Vanity Fair. But, far from pleasing Jeffrey Sachs, Bill Gates’s piece rather seemed to invoke anger in him as apparent in his retaliatory piece, “Why Bill Gates Gets It Wrong”.

But we need to remember that apart from this tug of words between Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Gates, at deeper level there exists much more to draw these two world-class personalities even closer together. For one thing, both personalities could be viewed as the icons of the hegemonic Anglo-Saxon, ‘Darwinian-Capitalism’; for another, probably with the motive of rendering a little human face to otherwise bestial, ‘man-eat-man’ capitalism, both have given themselves the ‘messianic mission’ of ‘fighters of poverty’  in Africa. But, whether this motif is truly a humanistic one or to affirm the perfect working of the hegemonic capitalist system by using Africa as a live laboratory remains open to questions.

At the heart of the dispute lies mainly Sachs’s 120 million dollar Millennium Villages Project (MVP) that he conceived to “demonstrate” to the world how to “lift African villages out of poverty through a massive infusion of targeted assistance”.

The same old wine in a new bottle

Anyone fairly familiar with the literature of African development knows all too well that the idea of intensive interventions in certain selected areas with the purpose of bringing an overall development, as claimed by MVP, is never at all new. We already know it by its familiar name, Holistic or Integrated Development Approach that surfaced since around the mid-1970s.

However, in later years, this strategy, too, like many of its predecessors fated a total failure. Many scholars attribute the complex nature of the strategy that was beyond the capability and the organizational readiness of the beneficiary communities to be the major factor for its failure.

Surprisingly enough, compared with Sachs’s MVP, even the failed Holistic Approach appears to be, in some respect, far more superior, in that, at least in principle, it didn’t view the communities as passive foreign aid recipients, or analogically speaking, not as ‘poverty patients’ who surrendered their chance of recovery to the mercy of a highly specialized lonely ‘poverty doctor’; in the Holistic Approach, the communities were supposed to be active participants and even contributors to the projects; at best, the approach wasn’t meant to be an adventurous show of vanity to demonstrate to others how to do poverty alleviation.

The bullet that went astray

While I strongly concur with Bill Gates’s humble opinion of making mistakes in the course of doing some worthwhile activity and not to be discouraged by them, nevertheless, I found his some other commentaries to be hollow and full of contradictions.

To be sure, though he rebuked Nina Munk for defaming Jaffrey Sachs,  eventually he can’t help but concur with her overall appraisal of the MVP as something that “so far not lived up to Sachs’s vision”. As he put it, “based on what Munk reports about the MVP, I am not about to throw stones.” Then, Bill Gates concludes “though he’s one of the world’s smartest economists, but in the villages Munk profiled, Sachs seems to be wearing blinders.”

According to Bill Gates, one of the stumbling blocks in the MVP lies in the selection of ‘wrong localities’ – localities with “all kinds of problems – from drought to political unrest”. Definitely, this is a self-defeating argument that has entirely denied the very cause that has called for such type of intervention in the first place. If it wasn’t for assisting those communities wallowing in most adverse situation, then, was it there to cheer up those living in fairly comfortable situation? Sadly, this implies that what Bill Gates has been highly preoccupied with is not so much with bringing an ease to the suffering of the communities as the conspicuous display of the presumed achievement of the aid project.

Furthermore, Bill Gates lists a number of concerns ranging from the very assumption of the MVP to what he thought was a proper area of competence that Sachs would rather concentrate on – apparently the reasons that Bill Gates turned down Sachs’s request of fund for the MVPs.

But these concerns of Bill Gates are not, at best, more than a laundry list of abstract economic indicators – remotely related to the actual living realities of the people – the area which Jeffrey Sachs will be least suspected to be oblivious of.

Of all, a bit startling concern of Bill Gates is that which regards the feasibility of measuring progress. In this respect, he questions, “how feasible it was to measure progress, given the likelihood that people from the surrounding areas would stream into their villages once the MVP aid started flowing.”

Evidently, this is an absurd and quite misplaced concern given the African well-developed and elaborate notion of territoriality and centuries-old sentimental attachment that they have to their localities. Minimally, a locality in African context is not some fluid, temporal camping site that one swamps for and abandons in search of some trivial foreign aid, even with those mobile pastoral communities.

Retreat to the vanity of ‘whiteboard economics’

With regard to Jeffrey Sachs’s piece, it just suffices to say it’s quite disappointing and totally unbecoming of him. His defensive argument has been filled with so much fallacies that one can think of. To mention few, the fallacy of ad hominem argument (attacking the person rather than ideas) as exemplified in his belittling of Munk’s professional profile instead of showing what she errs; the assertion of epistemological vanity, that the mathematical model of ‘whiteboard economics’ is the sole means towards discovering truth; the fallacy of double-standard, while disputing Munk’s findings on the ground of short-duration visit to project site, inviting others to do so (even with shorter-duration) in order to dispute her findings; the justification of project sustainability on mere uncritical replication of his project model by dishonest government officials; excessive reliance on technical knowledge as evident in his assertion that his project was helped by the best African professionals.

To conclude, in my view a grass-root poverty alleviation initiative such as the MVP, over and above anything else, should strive to: take constructive lessons from similar past approach; aside technical knowledge, to have the gut to trust the wisdom and capability of grass-root communities; instead of focusing on symptoms, to trace and resolve the root of poverty in the wider political, social, cultural and institutional framework of the society; rather than letting communities depend on temporal foreign hand-out, to enable and empower them to help, help themselves using their own human potential and local resources so that in the end they would take their own destiny into their own hands.

The Writer can be reached at: tayesosa@yahoo.com


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