The Poor are Poor because…

Tim Hoiland, a fellow theology/development/general stuff blogger, posted a piece last week entitled, “The Church Among the Poor“. In it he quotes Jayakumar Christian (Christian development scholar) who says, “The poor are poor because someone else is trying to play God in their life”.

Now, there are a lot of so-called axioms that start with “the poor are poor…” To list a few (in no particular order):

“The poor are poor because they lack capital (money).”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of human rights.”
“The poor are poor because they are dependent on the rich.”
“The poor are poor because of the rich.”
“The poor are poor because poverty traps.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of foreign assistance.”
“The poor are poor because of foreign assistance.”
“The poor are poor because of political corruption.”
“The poor are poor because of extractive political and economic institutions.”
“The poor are poor because they are unlucky.”
“The poor are poor because they make bad decisions.”
“The poor are poor because they are lazy.”
“The poor are poor because they have poor soil productivity.”
“The poor are poor because there are no markets.”
“The poor are poor because of geography.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of freedom.”
“The poor are poor because they are discouraged.”
“The poor are poor because of misguided policies.”
“The poor are poor because of mal-investment.”
“The poor are poor because they hyperbolically discount the future.”
“The poor are poor because of culture.”
“The poor are poor because of colonialism.”
“The poor are poor because of capitalism.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of labor specialization.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of technology adoption.”

…and so on… some of these are more right than others, some overlap with others, and of course, there are many that have been left out.

It strikes me that Jayakumar’s axiom is probably one of the most-right among this list. (Excluding, of course, Acemoglu and Robinson’s theory, which almost no one argues against.) Jayakumar’s axiom is both nuanced and simple. Razor sharp and remarkably general. The idea that we may be “playing God in someone else’s life” is immediately horrifying for those of us who strive to help others in any sort of capacity, and it’s easy (perhaps natural) to say, “I’m not ‘playing God’ I care about the people I serve”, dismissing the potential tort entirely.

I think, however, we all need to think about what we do and (more importantly) how we do it and ask, “Am I playing God?” Consider the following video of Financial Times journalist and former World Bank economist, Tim Harford:

One Year in Kenya [Lesson 5/5]

In any foreign country, I will always be a foreigner.


I know, I know! This seems obvious. Maybe it is. I think it is a really important lesson, however. I’ve written a lot about the concept of ‘home’ before (here and here). Here’s the critical nuance: while certain aspects of life in Kenya have come to feel like home and it may be important to strive to create ‘home’ wherever we happen to be at any time, it is important to understand that in any foreign country I will always be a foreigner. I am an outsider and it would be a mistake to think otherwise.

There are large swaths of life that I will never fully understand. There is stark need for humility in all aspects of life. I’ll illustrate this thought with a fun story, to be sure however, the lesson goes much deeper.

A couple months ago I was riding a boda boda (motorbike taxi) into town to run a couple errands. At this point I was fairly confident with myself in the task of riding a boda boda into town. I had been living in Kitale for over 6 months, I could hardly go anywhere in town without being recognized, I was maybe a little cocky.

About halfway into our 5 minute ride, the driver turned to me and asked, “Is it ok if I stop for petrol?” Of course, I politely agreed, but inside I was panicking. What am I supposed to do? Do I stay seated on the bike? Do I get off the bike? How am I supposed to behave? It seems like such a meaningless part of life, and it probably is for many local Kenyans, but for me it was existential.

I was forcing this place to become my home so much that I was overlooking the necessary humility I needed to have. The difficulty is, constantly behaving with humility causes constant anxiety, because you realize that you actually have no idea of what is going to happen next and how you ought to react to whatever happens. This anxiety is exhausting.

1342902911_lawrence-of-arabia-movieWithout this humility (and constant anxiety) outsiders force themselves to reduce reality down to something that they can understand, comprehend, and manage. There is a term for this used by art and literary historians (and increasingly cultural and development scholars): orientalism. In art and literature this is the depiction of Middle Eastern or East Asian cultures by artists and writers from the West. (See Lawrence of Arabia as an example.) The phrase often used by orientalist critiques is reductive repetition. Reducing aspects of culture down to something manageable and creating something that gels with these basic characteristics.

Orientalism is dangerous in development practice and rife in development studies. Consider the following from the abstract of the most cited paper on this topic:

Contemporary Africa is generally depicted as a ‘failure’. ‘Progress’ has eluded the continent throughout the 20th century, and despite new ways of thinking about the reasons for failure and possibilities for success, allusions to the ‘natural weakness and incapacity’ of Africans and their social realities remain evident in theoretical, policy and political discourse on development in Africa. The practice of ‘reductive repetition’, as identified by Abdallah Laroui and Edward Said, has been imported into African development studies from Orientalist scholarship. Reductive repetition reduces the diversity of African historical experiences and trajectories, sociocultural contexts and political situations into a set of core deficiencies for which externally generated ‘solutions’ must be devised. In the field of development studies, the notion of development is introduced to Africa as a deus ex machina [god from the machine]. (emphasis added)

Said differently, outsiders suffer from ‘the god complex‘ and pretend to ‘be experts’ and ‘know what they are doing’ by bypassing humility and reducing a setting down to core deficiencies which make sense and are manageable. I find myself writing the following over and over on this blog: most development programs that fail, fail because a complex situation was oversimplified.

This brings me back to my first lesson. The more I learn about the world the more I find myself saying, “I don’t know”. Perhaps this is the main reason why experience abroad is so important for a career in development work. Spending time in Kenya is not so that I will be able to understand life in Kenya. That will never fully coalesce. Experience abroad teaches you that ‘being an expert’ and ‘knowing what to do’ are impossible for an individual to achieve.

The Challenges of Simple Problems

Book Review: The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End PovertyNina Munk131010125449-idealist-cover-459xa

It is hard to come up with something to say about Nina Munk’s magnificent book that hasn’t already been said. The sincerity of this statement is proven by the fact that those very words have already been said. Due to this reality and the fact that I’ve been meaning to review this book since I read it several months ago; I will review Nina’s work by reviewing the most popular reviews already written. Four key lessons stick out to me while reading the actual book and its many reviews.

Nina spent the better part of six years following Jeff Sachs around to meetings with African diplomats, to seminars with large aid agencies, and flash-mob appearances in various rural African villages. She also spent considerable time in two of the Millennium Villages. Dertu, an arid Kenyan village close to the Somali boarder and, Ruhiira, a village in Western Uganda.

Joe Nocera in a New York Times Op-Ed sets the stage:

Nina Munk’s new book, “The Idealist,” is about the well-known economist Jeffrey Sachs and his “quest to end poverty,” as the subtitle puts it. I know: That subtitle sounds like classic book-industry hyperbole, but, in this case, it’s not. That really is what Sachs has been trying to do. The question of whether or not he is succeeding is where things get tricky.

The quest began in 2005, when Sachs, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University, started an ambitious program called the Millennium Villages Project (MVP). He and his team chose a handful of sub-Saharan African villages, where they imposed a series of “interventions” in such areas as agriculture, health and education. The idea was that these villages would show Africa — and the world — how the continent could loosen the grip that extreme poverty had on so many of its people.

From the start, the Millennium Villages Project has been controversial. It has soaked up large sums of money — the original seed money was $120 million — which its critics believe could have been better used on more targeted, less grandiose forms of aid. Because Sachs, for years, refused — on ethical grounds, he said — to rigorously compare the results at his villages with villages that didn’t get the same kind of help, development experts complained that there was no way of knowing if the project was making a difference.

Jeffrey Sachs is a brilliant man. This much is clear. As a world-renowned economist Sachs successfully (more or less) turned around the economic fortunes of Bolivia and Poland with “Shock Therapy”—a plan that aimed to jolt an economy out of socialism and into a market economy and gave him the nickname “Dr. Shock”. It is important to note that Sachs is a macro-economist. He is trained to think about the world at the country level, rather than at the individual level. To be sure he is very good at analyzing the country level of the world. This is the reason, however, macro-economists typically are not called to evaluate projects, programs, or policies. It is the job of the micro-economist to consider individual behavior in aggregate and evaluate success or failure.

If the first lesson is that Sachs is brilliant—on the level of his grad school age-mates Paul Krugman and Larry Summers—the second lesson is that solving poverty is not easy. Erika Fry summarizes a few of the challenges faced by Sachs the MV Project in her review in Fortune:

But Sachs’s quest—which plays out in the handful of villages in sub-Saharan Africa that comprise his Millennium Villages Project—seems to falter at every turn. A livestock market is abandoned two months after it opens. Villagers use their new mosquito nets (distributed to prevent malaria) on goats. Water-carrying donkeys drop dead. Hospital generators break down. Much-anticipated markets for banana flour and pineapple never materialize. And, because there is no market or local storage facilities, a bumper crop of maize—thanks to fertilizer and high-yield seeds—goes to the rats.


Bill Easterly articulates the third lesson in his first review of Nina’s book. “As the author makes clear, no one has worked harder to help the world’s poor than Jeffrey Sachs, or made more of the world’s affluent care about their plight.” This lesson put in context with Sach’s idea that, “we have enough on the planet to make sure, easily, that people aren’t dying of their poverty”, presents a harrowing conclusion. That nobody has worked harder, than Jeff Sachs, trying to show ending poverty is easy.

But as Easterly writes in his second review of the book:

Sachs’ technical fixes frequently turned out to be anything but simple. The saga of Dertu’s wells is illustrative. Ahmed Mohamed, the local man in charge of the effort, discovers that he needs to order a crucial part for a generator that powers the wells. The piece takes four months to arrive, and then nobody knows how to install it. Eventually a distant mechanic arrives at great expense. A couple of years later, Munk returns to find Mohamed struggling with the same issues: The wells have broken down again, the parts are lacking, and nobody knows how to fix the problem.

A little more than a year after that, the wells are up and running again, and the Millennium Villages blog celebrates Dertu as having “the most reliable water supply within the region.” Yet by 2011 the wells have run completely dry due to a drought—a not-uncommon occurrence in the arid region.

Such examples multiply in Munk’s book, showing that purely technological answers to poverty fall well short of Sachs’ promises. It turns out that technology does not implement itself; it requires the assistance of real people subject to widely varying incentives and constraints in complex social and political systems.

The final lesson comes from Angus Deaton’s review:

Modern technology, with its models and manuals, has an irresistible fascination for social engineers, and has done so for most of the past century. New knowledge and new ways of doing things have indeed been the source of much of human progress. Yet the schemes of the planners have rarely brought the improvement in the human condition that their well-intentioned architects had hoped for, and have often brought disaster. Thousands of years of painstakingly accumulated local knowledge cannot be incorporated into such plans. Nor can technocratic methods make up for bad politics, or provide a substitute for the two-way contract between politicians and people that provides public goods in exchange for taxes and that underpins development.


The Millennium Villages come with none of the coercion that accompanied the rural development projects of Stalin or of Nyerere, let alone the murderous horrors of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. For that we should be grateful. Yet the crying shame is that while the hubris came from Sachs, the nemesis came to the villagers.

The fourth lesson is tragic. When technical “experts” fail to act with humility or seriously consider the local challenges not mentioned in textbooks, suffering comes not to the foreign experts but to the local poor.

about-ninaThese lessons, which are discussed and summarized in the podcast Development Drums in which Nina is interviewed, are important for everyone wishing to do something good in this world. In this podcast Nina dispels several misguided reactions to this book. Some people when they read The Idealist say, “I’ve read your book, you must be against foreign aid” or “I’ve read your book, helping the poor must be hopeless”. Nina is vehemently against either of these reactions. In the former foreign aid is not the problem; it is hubris, an unwillingness to recognize failure, a disregard for the difficulties of specific contexts, and a general lack of appreciation for the challenges inherent in development projects led by outsiders. In the later helping the poor is not trivial, it is an imperative. We must however understand the challenges at play and approach the situation with humility, especially as an outsider.

If this all hasn’t been enough to convince you to read The Idealist, perhaps the following quotes will. The book is about poverty, development, and economics; but unlike most books in this genre, it is an absolute pleasure to read. Don’t take my word for it, others have already said the same thing.

Angus Deaton, in The Lancet: “Beyond the enormous punch that the book delivers, the quality of the writing is that of a fine novel, not of the usual tract in social science. We get to know and care about the characters, including Munk herself; we share their dedication, their optimism, and their dreams of improving lives. We also care when their illusions are destroyed, and their dedication is betrayed. Much of the message is conveyed by the arc of the story, and by the change in Munk’s own voice as she moves from her initial optimism and her commitment to reporting on something that really matters—the fight against global poverty—into final disillusion. It is a trip that many of us have made over the years, but few with so much knowledge from the field and none whose experiences are so eloquently and movingly reported.”

Erika Fry, in Fortune: “A fine writer with a gift for deploying spare, vivid detail, Munk overcomes the burden of what could be duller-than-dirt subject matter—the politics of foreign aid; the ins and outs of Uganda’s matoke market; NGO infighting over anti-malaria efforts—into a lively and at times, quite funny book.”

Andrew Jack, in The Financial Times: “Nina Munk’s The Idealist, [is] a highly readable examination of Jeffrey Sachs’s Millennium Villages Project in Africa.”

Laura Seay, in The Christian Science Monitor: “[The Idealist] is an absolute must-read for anyone who is interested in doing good for those in need. Far from writing a cheerleader’s account about someone who “just wants to help,” Munk raises questions about whether poverty actually has technical solutions, or whether cultural norms and behaviors can derail even the most well-funded and planned activities.”