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.