The Magazine

The Cost of Big Aid

Sometimes the cure is as bad as the disease.

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By BARTLE B. BULL
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In early 1997, Dertu was a barely mapped speck on the parched landscape of the Somali nomads of Kenya’s North Eastern Province. The place’s misfortune was to possess just enough groundwater to attract a UNICEF borehole. By late 2009, Dertu was a picture-perfect dystopia of 5,000 souls. Its cardboard shanties, shingled in aid-agency food bags, were separated only by winding channels of waste. The 15 overflowing pit latrines that had been built with foreign help in the previous few years collapsed in upon themselves. The broken windows of the half-built school opened into graffiti-covered rooms where the waterless plumbing had been ripped from the walls. 

Drawing water in Dertu, Kenya (2010)

Drawing water in Dertu, Kenya (2010)

associated press

Three years earlier, the Millennium Villages Project of an American economist called Jeffrey Sachs had arrived. Sachs would quickly spend over $2 million turning the village into a new paradigm for the transformative power of Big Aid. By 2009, Dertu’s Somali inhabitants—formerly herdsmen of the arid plains, now “pastoralist dropouts” in the tender idiom of the Western gods busily creating them—had found new ways to quarrel with themselves, and to abuse their imported Bantu laborers. The new town had gained not one real road or job; but Coca-Cola had come, and a cell phone tower, and murders and prostitutes, and dingy cafés to serve the aid boom. 

Nina Munk digs deep into Sachs’s work in Dertu, and in another of his African model villages, Ruhiira in southwest Uganda. Munk is a veteran of the higher ranks of American monthly magazine journalism: She brings to this book the deep, well-resourced reporting that can be a hallmark of that world. As America’s foremost chronicler of the follies of the dotcom boom, she understands hubris well. Munk originally went to Africa to cover the Millennium Villages Project—$120 million for 10 African villages over 5 years, meant to demonstrate how Sachs could defeat extreme poverty cheaply and quickly—for Vanity Fair in 2006. She kept going back through 2011, covering the span of Sachs’s five-year economic plan. 

In a 2004 Brookings Institution paper, Sachs had elucidated his theory of African poverty. It was all about something he calls the “poverty trap.” Some places are so poor that they will never be able to reach the “first rung” of the ladder. Extremely poor Africa, said Sachs, is “simply too poor to grow at all.” Might better government help? No. “More policy or governance reform, by itself, is not sufficient to overcome this trap.” Foreign investment? No. Such places are eternally condemned by their “poor infrastructure and weak human capital” to never attract external funds. 

What about the normal ways in which cultures leave poverty? Learning from neighbors, doing things better, saving a little here and there, making, growing, and herding things that others want, and (if they so desire) generally bootstrapping their way up like so many others? God forbid. In the poverty-trap religion, this is the scariest heresy of all. For Jeffrey Sachs and Big Aid, the one idea that is essential to the entire business is that Africans are not like the rest of us. For the poverty trapper, a basic racism is the fundamental meal ticket.  

As self-serving theories go, the poverty claptrap is brilliant. It is a perfect circle. Africa is so poor, and so African, that none of the normal historical ways to become less poor can work there. This leaves only one fix: more money. And someone must “input” the money, and do it correctly. Now, there is a job for the poverty trapper—and power and virtue too. 

One pleasant way to understand that the poverty trap makes no sense would be to visit the Spartan former quarters of the cavemen at Lascaux, in southern France, and then to enjoy a nicely chilled pression amongst their descendants in a café on a tidy nearby village square. Poverty, clearly, is not destiny. A less beguiling way to learn the same obvious lesson is to spend a few minutes looking at economic facts about Africa during the Sachs years. When Sachs, then at the United Nations, wrote about “Africa’s crisis” in 2004, sub-Saharan Africa happened to be in the midst of one of the more impressive growth decades achieved by any continent in recent centuries. Sub-Saharan GDP expanded at a 5.7 percent rate throughout the years 2000-10. This was 78 percent higher than economic growth in the world as a whole during that decade. Yet in the poverty trappers’ theory, the lower the base, the less the growth. Meanwhile, black Africa’s spectacular growth continues and will continue for many years to come. 

In absolute terms, too, the poverty story in Africa is not nearly as bad as Sachs and the Big Aid industry require us to believe. An example is Ghana, one of the original 10 countries selected for Sachs’s Millennium Villages. The 2010 International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook shows the country’s GDP rising from $10.7 billion in 2005 to $29 billion in 2013. This near-tripling of an economy in eight years is impressive enough. Then, later in 2010, the IMF revised its 2009-13 estimates of the size—not the growth, but the baseline size—of Ghana’s economy upwards by 66 percent on average. Meanwhile, the actual Ghanaian economy is, in fact, far larger than even these revised numbers say. This is true across Africa. Almost none of the continent’s quotidian economic activity—daily trading, most farming, small-scale resource activities, local lending, medicine, law, vehicle maintenance, services of any kind—is officially measured. IMF-type GDP numbers heavily overstate the continent’s poverty. 

Kenya and its neighbor Ethiopia, another of Sachs’s Millennium Villages targets, are favorite playgrounds for Big Aid. Seventy-five percent of residents of Kenya possess cell phones, and economic growth in Ethiopia, which exports nothing significant but coffee, has outpaced China’s over the last decade. Such cases abound across the continent. 

Nina Munk writes well about Africa. But we sense that, for her, Africa is really a portal, the literary wardrobe or looking-glass through which she bravely ventures into a stranger and more frightening place. This is Sachsland, a nightmarish realm where the fevered natives, chanting acronyms, conquer Africa in pressed khaki trousers for their zombie empire. 

The doughty Ms. Munk ventures courageously into the darkest reaches of this phantasmagorical hell: the canteen at U.N. headquarters, forward cabins on intercontinental flights, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These people are malarial. They are stupid and lazy and cannot help themselves. They gorge dementedly on the funds and misery of others. Leprous with arrogance and defensiveness, they have lost the facility of normal language. Outwardly well-meaning and clean, they are infected with a virulent creed of sociopathic condescension that causes them to inflict terrible harm on millions of innocent people far, far away. They are snared in the comfortable trap of the poverty of others. 

Munk writes with notable modesty for someone able to turn this dreary material into not only an important book, but a truly enjoyable read. She does not boast, but the reader cannot avoid the impression that her intrepid years in Sachsland have demanded all the inner steel of the most hardened explorer or war correspondent. 

Presiding over Sachsland’s well-heeled global empire is the figure of the Great Professor himself. He received tenure from Harvard at 28. At 48, another university gave him the keys to his first multimillion-dollar townhouse. Now, since Africans are too African to get anything done, the Great Professor must act for them. Deus ex machina requires a deity. Munk mercilessly allows Sachs’s own words and behavior to show just how much he revels in the role. Well-known Irish entertainers call him guru; macabre Hollywood sex kittens make videos with him. No matter that Africa has long been emerging boisterously from precisely the Sachsist dirigisme that got postcolonial Africa into its 1980-2000 hole in the first place: The neo-colonial has managed to combine the worst of imperialism and the worst of post-imperialism. 

King Leopold and the Five-Year Plan are back—at the same time. Africa will see them off.

Bartle B. Bull, former foreign editor of Prospect, manages an Iraq-focused investment fund.