Experiences, Learning

The Age of Sustainable Development: What gets measured, gets managed

This is a series from our writers Holly Narey and Michelle Gonzalez Amador who are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ online course The Age of Sustainable Development. They will be sending out an update on the course every week. Click here for more on all our writers. Check this tag to see all posts on this topic.

Have you heard the phrase ‘what gets measured, gets managed’? Jeffrey Sachs has, apparently, and he is a big fan.

When talking about development projects in a wider context, it is hard to get a clear picture. Part of the reason of this is because most projects have such a small impact in the overall development framework. It is easy to have a pessimistic view when we remember the statistic which introduced us to this course: there are one billion people living in extreme poverty.

This one statistic, however, does not show the progress over time. In the 1980’s, for example, the World Bank calculated that a little more than half of the people n the developing world lived in extreme poverty. By 1990, it had gone down to 45%, and by 2010, around 20%.

Setting goals

Lesson 5 of the series focused on the importance of setting goals for development, using the Millennium Development Goals as an example.

Economic progress, Sachs echoed from Keynesian ideas, is not the permanent problem of the human race – given no important wars and no significant population increase, that is. The real problem lies in concentrating efforts for a particular goal. That is true achievement of the MDGs: an ambitious project to fight extreme poverty. They are clear goals for people to understand, to promote, and to use to urge governments to take serious action that could end extreme poverty. They may be ambitious, and to a certain point, onerous, but they serve the purpose of setting the ideal to help mobilize efforts that would otherwise be disperse. Beneath those eight, broad and ambitious goals, there are twenty one specific and quantified targets and sixty detailed indicators that have better allowed us to measure the progress made.

The story so far

Because of the unenforceable nature of the MDGs, efforts may be uneven or prioritized differently from country to country. For example, China’s remarkable economic growth is a big part of the success of reduction of poverty (MDG 1). However, more globalized achievements have been found in the steady decline of malaria and other tropical diseases.

The establishment of the MDGs has both propelled the scaling up of development projects, and also permitted us to identify the remaining challenges. These include:

  • Agriculture in Africa. The source of food supply for the continent faces many obstacles. Namely the low yield and the lack of funding to invest in better management for irrigation, good seeds variety, etc.
  • The lack of government investment in infrastructure. A particular issue in certain parts of the developing world, this leaves regions isolated, hindering trade and its spillovers.
  • High fertility rates. Not only does this pose a problem for urban-planners but also, in terms of food and other production, directly influencing the environment.
  • Food security. As broad as this is it continues to be one of the biggest challenges if poverty eradication wishes to be environmentally sustainable.

How to tackle poverty

Sachs makes an interesting three-pronged proposal to tackle poverty:

  1. Investing in GMOs. Sachs used the case of India’s green revolution in the 60’s to back this point up. Certainly a controversial topic, as GMO production is, to my knowledge, monopolized by MONSANTO. Sachs himself did not say it, but perhaps it is important to note that, for such an action to work, certain prerequisites need to be met, particularly concentrating research in solving specific agricultural challenges in poor regions, as opposed to general increase in food production.
  2. Official Development Assistance. Otherwise said, a temporary injection of funds for targeted investments so that a poor place can jump-start a process of sustainable growth. Highly contested by other experts, such as Easterly or Moyo, who’ve used Sach’s own love for hard data against himself by exposing the side-effects of Aid money in African countries, it is probably the most complex solution, for it involves political will and efficient management from the part of the receiver-country. Sachs argues that because of the inherent risks of borrowing money, such as debt-crisis, a financial grant could provide the initial investment a country needs to leave the poverty-trap. Sadly, it has been shown that certain countries have become dependent on AID money, in detriment of initiatives to mobilize their own resources.
  3. Practical interventions: specifically, the Millennium Villages. Implementation has always been a big issue for development practitioners. By designing such a project and applying the MDGs as a guiding principle, Sachs wished to understand through empirical evidence which where the hardest steps of implementation. In its eighth year, the extremely controversial Millennium Villages project has, Sachs argues, shown that it is possible to help mobilize a community. ‘By harnessing the energies of communities, with a little bit of help, best practices, etc. tremendous things can be achieved’ concluded Sachs. Probably the solution that concentrated more on explaining the project than on explaining the findings, it still gave a spot-on argument. Realizing the potential of social capital in each community can lead to high-impact beneficial changes in a development framework.

Lesson 5 has been the most controversial lesson thus far, exposing the personally biased ideas of the professor. Whatever the faults of Sachs and despite his many detractors, he has clearly held onto his vision of ending poverty sometime soon.

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Learning

Jeffrey Sachs Answered Questions On Reddit, Here Are The Highlights

Recently, the online community of Reddit provided us with yet another great opportunity to question one of today’s top minds in a social-convention-free zone. On January 15th, Jeffrey Sachs took part in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session where hundreds of Reddit users were able to ask him educated and insightful questions about his work, beliefs, and opinions.

If you’re wondering what Sachs could possibly be doing on Reddit, or what Reddit even is, be sure to check out this great article by Rowan Emslie which should help to clear that up.

Part of Sachs’ motivation for doing the AMA was likely to promote his upcoming free online university course ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’. This 14-week course begins on January 21, and if your interested you can learn more or register for it here. Sachs encouraged many of those participating in the AMA to take the course and “join the generation-long quest to achieve sustainable development”.

For those of you who may not have the time to read this entire (rather long) article, here are some of the main takeaways from the AMA:

  • The importance of public health and environmental sustainability dominated the discussion
  • Sachs stood adamantly behind his views about foreign aid (as expected)
  • He often used the AMA as a vehicle to help plug his main causes and give them more exposure

Over the course of the AMA, Sachs also expressed his opinion on some topics you may have not expected, including the recently leaked draft of the TPP´s (Trans-Pacific Partnership) Environment Chapter, how automation and robotics will affect development, and even Sachs’ favourite novels. While these were definitely interesting insights, below I will focus mainly on recapping the main themes and top comments for anyone who missed the AMA.

What is Sustainable Development?

“We’ll discuss that at length in class. I am using the term “Sustainable Development,” meaning a holistic approach that combines economic, social, and environmental goals.”

Enough said. 

Global Health as the Key to Development

Public health and economic development have always been key components of Sachs’ policy and academic work. He makes it no secret that he views global health as the first stepping stone towards development.

Prioritizing development goals:

“I’d start with the health goals, since those are life and death. And then (or simultaneously) the hunger goal (obvious reason) and then education. Of course once people are alive and properly nourished, education becomes the KEY!”

On strategies to end poverty while increasing sustainable development:

“I think that the key to ending poverty and increasing sustainable development is “investment-led growth,” with investments in people (health, nutrition, education, training), plus investments in infrastructure (such as low-carbon energy), plus investments in “smart” systems using information technologies.”

The Great Aid Debate

As a champion of foreign aid and constant presence in the great aid debate, it was inevitable that the effectiveness of aid would be questioned and that some of Sachs’ top critics would come up in the discussion.

On Dambisa Moyo:

“Unlike Dambisa Moyo, I believe that aid is needed and can be organized effectively and respectfully. I am very happy with the successful scale up of aid for public health in the past decade. It has saved millions of lives and helped to promote economic development.”

Describing his relationship with William Easterly (with a passive aggressive smiley):

“There are days when I’m happier and days when I’m less happy. We’re colleagues and friends, but sometimes I’m simply amazed (and not happy) when he declares that “aid has failed.” This is simply NOT RIGHT!!! :-)”

On ‘The Great Escape’ by Angus Deaton:

“I did not agree with his very blanket statements against aid. In my view, such statements are contrary to the evidence. When somebody declares so categorically that all aid fails, raise your doubts. Such generalizations are not accurate. Much aid is very important. We need to understand why some aid succeeds and other aid fails, so that we can improve the design of aid programs.”

The Millennium Villages Project

The Millennium Villages Project has become one of Sachs’ most controversial endeavours, and has been the source of heavy criticism. This contentious debate arose following the first independent evaluation of one of the villages, and erupted in a series of online articles and duelling editorials. This past September, the commentary resurfaced with the release of Nina Munk’s book The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Despite this, Sachs is quick to challenge any criticism and stands firmly behind his project.

Sachs’ response to those who criticize the Millennium Villages Project:

“The project has had enormous positive impacts, way beyond the villages themselves. Governments have taken the successes of the villages as a basis for national policy, e.g. the control of malaria and the scale up of community health workers. There were originally 10 countries in the program, but its so useful for governments that the program is now operating directly or indirectly (through policy advice for example or as a template) in 23 countries. Please see www.millenniumvillages.org. By the way, there will be a comprehensive evaluation of the project, and a comparison with other places nearby, in 2015, to be reported in 2016. It will be interesting for all, including of course the project participants, to learn from these results!”

On the Millennium Villages Post-2015:

“The MVs will be evaluated at the end of 2015, and we will make course corrections and improvements as needed in several national programs underway to scale up the MV model. So the basic notion of using community-based rural development will continue past 2015, for sure. It’s working in many powerful ways, but will have even clearer evidence in 2015 on many important detailed issues.”

The Global Fund

In 2000, Sachs worked with then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to design and launch the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria and has worked to support the organization ever since. Last month, Sachs called to task many developed countries for failing to come up with the necessary $5 billion to maintain the momentum of the Fund. He continued his campaign to gain support for the Fund through his AMA.

On using empirical studies to evaluate aid programs:

“We need to be smart in our aid policies, using knowledge, experience, and EXPERTISE outside of economics (such as in public health). The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and GAVI are examples of aid success. We should measure and evaluate programs, but use methods that are appropriate to the circumstances. There is too much of a one-size-fits-all strategy to evaluation these days (too much on randomized trials, excluding other means of evaluation).”

On the continuation of the Global Fund agenda:

“The Global Fund is still trying to close the $5 billion. I’ll be speaking with several governments over the next few weeks as well to help close the deal. The name of the game is PERSISTENCE. It takes time to convince governments!!!”

On getting governments to work in the interest of their people:

“I believe that aid can be designed in ways that promote accountability and transparency. This is how the Global Fund has worked most of the time. It’s been a good and successful model. Yes, we should promote a high degree of transparency. Remember that much of the corruption starts from the side of the rich countries and their companies.”

Throughout the AMA, Sachs maintained his idealistic persona and most of his responses had an upbeat tone to them. While he frequently spoke about the success of his projects, he often rebuffed any commenter who brought up critiques of his work. One thing that I found particularly interesting was that Sachs often lumped those who disagreed with his work into the same category as those who simply didn’t ‘understand’ or ‘get’ his work and ideas. A little condescending don’t you think? That being said, what really shined through for me was Sachs’ talent as a campaigner, as it’s undeniable that he is quite effective at garnering support and drawing attention to his principle causes.

So what did you think of Sachs’ AMA? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section below!

Editor’s Note: Two of our new writers – Michelle Gonzalez Amador and Holly Narey – are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ new online course and will be blogging about their experience. We’ll be using the tag ‘Age of Sustainable Development’ for all these posts so check back on that in the coming weeks for more.

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