The Agenda

Michael Clemens on the Impact of the Millennium Villages Project

Michael Clemens, one of the most determined scholars I know, has been subjecting Jeffrey Sachs’s claims regarding the impact of the Millennium Villages Project, a large-scale demonstration program devoted to evaluating the efficacy of various anti-poverty measures. He summarizes some of his findings, and the state of the debate so far, at the Center for Global Development’s blog:

Sachs asserted that the project is “enormously successful” and that its claims of impact are backed by 27 articles of “peer-reviewed science.” If you actually read those articles, you’ll see that only three of them involve any impact evaluation, all of which is short-term. You’ll also find that those three articles only measure two of the long list of impacts claimed by the project (child stunting and crop yields), and that one of those articles (about child stunting) is based on the same simplistic before-and-after analysis mentioned above. Peer-review or no peer-review, before-and-after comparisons are not scientific. For example, child stunting at the Bonsaaso, Ghana Millennium Village has declined, but child stunting across the large region where Bonsaaso is locatedhas declined at the same rate over the same period.

To defend MVP, Sachs has been making increasingly strange claims, as Clemens notes:

What Sachs and Singh are saying, above, is that you can’t compare the results of the project’s activities at the intervention sites to results elsewhere, because other projects are doing similar things—like promoting the use of fertilizer—elsewhere. But the project’s reports do not claim impacts of fertilizer promotion in general. They claim impacts of the Millennium Villages Project in particular. That’s what all these experts find indefensible, baffling, and absurd. Funders of a project want to know what the impact of that project is, and this is how the project portrays its claims of impact to its funders.

Now his defenders are claiming that developing countries are tackling entrenched poverty because of Sachs’s various innovations, i.e., the fact that improvements aren’t just in the MVPs but throughout various countries can still be attributed to his role. Clemens is skeptical:

I invite readers to judge for themselves the plausibility of the claim that “Professor Sachs individually” has caused the huge increases in school enrollment, vast increases in cell phone ownership, and huge declines in malaria prevalence that have occurred all across Africa over the past decade—all changes that the Millennium Villages Project has uncritically claimed in large part as its own “impacts” and “achievements” with its before-and-after evaluation. If that is true, Africans themselves would not have made the enormous efforts and sacrifices they have made to accomplish those sweeping improvements if not for the arrival of Professor Sachs from New York. On that, I am speechless.

Having spent some time in the developing world, my crude impression is that people living in desperate poverty tend to think they’d rather be somewhat better off, at least in human development terms, e.g., they’d prefer that their children survive beyond the age of 5, etc. 

I’ve cited Sachs’s critique of fiscal stimulus favorably in the past. His basic take is that we need fewer wild swings in policy and more of a sustained shift. Now, the sustained shift he has in mind is very much at odds with my preferred vision, i.e., he wants a sustained shift towards a much larger public sector financed by much higher taxes. Regardless, I’ve found his thinking on this front stimulating. But Sachs’s celebrity rests on the MVP, and one gets the impression that he believes his own press more than is appropriate.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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