Advocates and scientists

A new book by The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. The blurbs on Amazon are fascinating because they indicate that either the reviewers didn’t actually read the book (which wouldn’t be all that surprising) or that Munk’s book paints a nuanced enough picture that readers can come away with very different views on what it actually proves. Here are two examples:

Amartya Sen: “Nina Munk’s book is an excellent – and moving – tribute to the vision and commitment of Jeffrey Sachs, as well as an enlightening account of how much can be achieved by reasoned determination.”

Robert Calderisi: “A powerful exposé of hubris run amok, drawing on touching accounts of real-life heroes fighting poverty on the front line.”

The publisher’s description seems to encompass both of those points of view: “The Idealist is the profound and moving story of what happens when the abstract theories of a brilliant, driven man meet the reality of human life.” That sounds like a good read to me — I look forward to reading when it comes out in September.

Munk’s previous reporting strikes a similar tone. For example, here’s an excerpt of her 2007 Vanity Fair profile of Sachs:

Leaving the region of Dertu, sitting in the back of an ancient Land Rover, I’m reminded of a meeting I had with Simon Bland, head of Britain’s Department for International Development in Kenya. Referring to the Millennium Villages Project, and to Sachs in particular, Bland laid it out for me in plain terms: “I want to say, ‘What concept are you trying to prove?’ Because I know that if you spend enough money on each person in a village you will change their lives. If you put in enough resources—enough foreigners, technical assistance, and money—lives change. We know that. I’ve been doing it for years. I’ve lived and worked on and managed [development] projects.

“The problem is,” he added, “when you walk away, what happens?”

Someone — I think it was Chris Blattman, but I can’t find the specific post — wondered a while back whether too much attention has been given to the Millennium Villages Project. After all, the line of thinking goes, the MVP’s have really just gotten more press and aren’t that different from the many other projects with even less rigorous evaluation designs. That’s certainly true: when journalists and aid bloggers debate the MVPs, part of what they’re debating is Sachs himself because he’s such a polarizing personality. If you really care about aid policy, and the uses of evidence in that policy, then that can all feel like an unhelpful distraction. Most aid efforts don’t get book-length profiles, and the interest in Sachs’ personality and persona will probably drive the interest in Munk’s book.

But I also think the MVP debates have been healthy and interesting — and ultimately deserving of most of the heat generated — because they’re about a central tension within aid and development, as well as other fields where research intersects with activism. If you think we already generally know what to do, then it makes sense to push forward with it at all costs. The naysayers who doubt you are unhelpful skeptics who are on some level ethically culpable for blocking good work. If you think the evidence is not yet in, then it makes more sense to function more like a scientist, collecting the evidence needed to make good decisions in the longer term. The naysayers opposing the scientists are then utopian advocates who throw millions at unproven projects. I’ve seen a similar tension within the field of public health, between those who see themselves primarily as advocates and those who see themselves as scientists, and I’m sure it exists elsewhere as well.

That is, of course, a caricature — few people fall completely on one side of the advocates vs. scientists divide. But I think the caricature is a useful one for framing arguments. The fundamental disagreement is usually not about whether evidence should be used to inform efforts to end poverty or improve health or advance any other goal. Instead, the disagreement is often over what the current state of knowledge is. And on that note, if you harbor any doubts on where Sachs has positioned himself on that spectrum here’s the beginning of Munk’s 2007 profile:

In the respected opinion of Jeffrey David Sachs…. the problem of extreme poverty can be solved. In fact, the problem can be solved “easily.” “We have enough on the planet to make sure, easily, that people aren’t dying of their poverty. That’s the basic truth,” he tells me firmly, without a doubt.

…To Sachs, the end of poverty justifies the means. By hook or by crook, relentlessly, he has done more than anyone else to move the issue of global poverty into the mainstream—to force the developed world to consider his utopian thesis: with enough focus, enough determination, and, especially, enough money, extreme poverty can finally be eradicated.

Once, when I asked what kept him going at this frenzied pace, he snapped back, “If you haven’t noticed, people are dying. It’s an emergency.”


via Gabriel Demombynes.

If you’re new to the Millennium Villages debate, here’s some background reading: a recent piece in Foreign Policy by Paul Starobin, and some good posts by Chris Blattman (one, two, three), this gem from Owen Barder, and Michael Clemens.

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