Easterly vs Sachs

William Easterly and Jeff Sachs make a living by disagreeing with each other, though it seems that there is actually quite a bit of common ground.  The Los Angeles Times has a head-to-head (free registration required).   So far, Easterly is beating Sachs in the readers’ poll 2:1. 

Here are the money points:

William Easterly:

The end of poverty will come as a result of homegrown political and economic reforms (which are already happening in many poor countries), not through outside aid. The biggest hope for the world’s poor nations is not Bono, it is the citizens of poor nations themselves.

Jeff Sachs:

Instead of pointing to failures, we need to amplify the successes — including the green revolution, the global eradication of smallpox, the spread of literacy and, now, the promise of the Millennium Villages.

My views, for what they are worth, are as follows:

  • Easterly is right to challenge central planning – there are no examples in which it has worked.
  • Sachs is right that aid can, and does, work.  Saying – as Easterly does – that we know that aid doesn’t work from the fact that Africans are still poor is like
    saying that modern medicine is ineffective as people still get sick.
  • Though central plans are not the answer, there is too little coordination – we could do better if we reduced duplication & contradiction, learned more from success, and maximised synergies between interventions. 
  • Sachs’s villages will prove nothing, even if they are successful. They simply cannot be scaled.  Easterly’s label of "Potemkin villages" is on the mark.
  • Easterly is right to complain about the corrosive impact of corruption.  But very little of the corruption in developing countries is fuelled by aid – most of it flows from the private sector (for example, in kickbacks for oil contracts).  We all want more private sector involvement in developing countries; but Easterly is kidding himself if he thinks this will be less corrupt than aid.
  • Aid agencies are "devising specific, definable tasks that could actually help people and for which the public could hold them accountable" as Easterly thinks they should, and using the money for medicines, clean water, bed nets, text books, and improving the environment for business.  But there is too little aid money to do enough of this.  Three million people die each year of vaccine-preventable diseases alone.  That is why the agencies also have to run a "glitzy but unrealistic campaign to end world poverty".
  • Sachs may well be right that "An African green revolution, health revolution and connectivity revolution are all within reach."  Now that would be something.

Published by Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and

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7 Comments

  1. "Which op-ed on foreign aid put you in a headlock?"… terrible title for the poll. I’m sure some reader’s will misunderstand the question. It might mean (1) confuse you the most, (2) made you think the most, (3) you agree with the most, (4) you disagree with the most etc……..

  2. "Sachs’s villages will prove nothing, even if they are successful. They simply cannot be scaled. "That’s certainly the key issue. Sachs et al seem to think they can be scaled. What do you think the main obstacle would be – no money, no coordination, no monitoring, no TV cameras? 

  3. Jim

    I was persuaded by Celina Schocken, a colleague at the Center for Global Development.  When Jeff Sachs presented the Millennium Villages idea at CGD, Celina said this:

    I worked for you for two years in Rwanda and my question is about scalability and how these are going to be scaled up.  When I was in Rwanda recently I spoke to a number of ministers who said, “Well, you know we’re sending agricultural extension agents to Bugasera. We’re sending health workers to Bugasera. This is a real priority of President Kagame. And I’m sure that it’s a priority in all of the countries where you’re working that they really want to make these villages work. And I think there’s a huge value to what you’re doing and you going and meeting with the President and really telling them that you want this village to work and I—I guess I think that that might be worth probably more than $70.00 a year, in addition the value of your going there, and all of these experts coming in and this entrepreneurship that you’re creating. How are you going to scale that? Because I would suggest that it’s going to be very difficult to do beyond one or two villages in each country. 

    I think that is exactly the right question. 

    Owen 

  4. I’ve always been rather baffled by Easterly, because it seems to me that his strongest arguments do not require him to also argue that "aid is no use" and when he does, he flounders (as I think that debate linked to by Jim at word is weapon illustrates)

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