How a journalist reignited the Sachs-Easterly aid war

In September last year Nina Munk, contributing editor at Vanity Fair, released her latest book The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End World Poverty, chronicling her six years documenting the Millennium Villages project. For those that don’t know the Millennium Villages project, it was an endeavour launched by celebrity aid economist Jeffrey Sachs in 2005 where a handful of poor, remote villages across sub-Saharan Africa would become living experiments for a model approach to sustainable development. Sachs’ argument was that the solutions to poverty are quite straightforward – with enough money and the right prescriptions it can be alleviated.

In her own words, Munk’s book reveals “the profound and moving story of what happens when the abstract theories of a brilliant, driven man meet the messy reality of human life.” Recipient of Foreign Policy’s 2013 Albie Award, along with a long list of positive reviews, the book, which I read this summer, is a fantastic narrative of one man’s attempt, and ultimate hubris, in proving a model approach could solve the challenges of poverty alleviation. I had intended to review the book in more detail, and do highly recommend it, but what has happened in the following months is a less documented story.

The aid wonks among our readers would be familiar with the (not always) intellectual debate between Sachs and William Easterly over the effectiveness of aid. With the release of Sachs’ book The End of Poverty in 2005, and Easterly’s book The White Man’s Burden soon after, the heavyweight economists have quickly been rightly or wrongly polarized at opposing ends of the aid debate. While their positions are still widely repeated to development students and professionals alike, the authors have largely avoided direct criticism of one another in the past few years. Until Munk’s book was released.

In January of this year, the allure of Munk’s findings proving too much for him, Easterly posted a review of her book entitled The Aid Debate Is Over. While in the review itself Easterly does acknowledge some successes (and is traditionally not opposed to all aid, just the fix-all power of aid), the provocative title appeared too much for Sachs to ignore and he has since gone on the offensive. In recent weeks he has taken to Twitter (see a wrap up here), Reddit (conducting an ‘Ask Me Anything’ discussion, summarised here) and Foreign Policy (article here, ridiculous editorial brilliance screengrab below) to justify and defend the importance of foreign aid, while only giving cursory acknowledgement to the Millennium Villages that ignited the whole debate. Easterly has since picked up on Sachs’ ‘aid amnesia’ in a follow-up piece also in Foreign Policy.

This doesn’t look to be the end of the current round of the Easterly-Sachs saga. And I wonder for how much longer people will listen? The debate has become so binary between the two that most in the development community have moved on – we know some aid works and some doesn’t, but we need to work harder on figuring out why. That is where the real aid discussion should be.



Jonathan Pryke

Jonathan Pryke worked at the Development Policy Centre from 2011, and left in mid-2015 to join the Lowy Institute, where he is now Director of the Pacific Islands Program. He has a Master of Public Policy/Master of Diplomacy from Crawford School of Public Policy and the College of Diplomacy, ANU.


  • Now Jeffrey Sachs has also weighed in on econtalk with his own interview, available here. I’ve yet to listen to it but hear that it gets both quite scrappy and controversial.

  • Thanks to Mr Sachs for his offer of 1 February.

    The stories on the success of aid for public health are always worth reading, especially as they contribute to taking the debate beyond the query still current “does aid work”.

    Some of the evidence has been established in a 2010 report by the World Health Organisation titled “Protecting Health: Thinking Small” (WHO Bulletin 2010:88:713-715). That report demonstrated the value of linking microfinance lending with a package including health-care subsidies, training and interventions for social inclusion.

  • If you don’t have time to read the book the author recently participated in an hour long interview with econtalk that is an excellent summary of her work. You can listen to it here.

  • Thanks Jon, this is great- particularly loving the screengrab of the FP piece- do you promise that’s real and not photoshopped?! (I have a copy of last week’s FT on my desk right now,with yet another letter from Sachs to Easterly on the correspondence pages…).

    I agree with you that the debate is a little reductive at this point and the rest of us have probably moved on…However, I think perhaps it’s less for Sachs and Easterly to step out of the limelight- as Henry says, they’ve earned their position there by writing compelling and readable books- and perhaps for those of us who want a more nuanced argument in the public space, to make sure that these more nuanced arguments are equally as readable and relevant to others (nobody mention complexity theory!).

    Perhaps we need to focus a bit more on getting the real facts about aid and aid effectiveness- what we know and what we don’t know, possibly through sheer lack of data- out there. I also think we could do a lot, by not having quite such siloed discussions about aid, in relation to other resources available to developing countries: FDI, tax revenues, private development assistance from large foundations, other official flows, etc. In that respect I can see Easterly’s point about aid being small in comparison; though I don’t think it necessarily follows that it’s worthless to continue giving it. Actually I think it means it’s all the more valuable a resource, and therefore important to understand better its relative advantages, and recognise where it does have impact- perhaps to meet Sachs in the middle here. Meanwhile, these other flows and how they interface with ODA are definitely where the development community could benefit from better understanding (and donors could be having more cross- government-department conversations about policy coherence in relation to these impacts)?

    So, how do those of us working in devpolicy comms support a more nuanced argument to emerge in the public domain? And more importantly how do we build a more representative discourse- which can move us away from some of the most prominent and authoritative voices on aid and development, being white people [men] from the developed world? (not just thinking of Sachs and Easterly here!) Personally, therefore, I’d suggest asking someone other than Jeff Sachs (despite his very kind offer above me) to write something on the issues you rightly raise in your last paragraph…

    “we know some aid works and some doesn’t, but we need to work harder on figuring out why. That is where the real aid discussion should be.”?…

    (though I suspect there’s no way you would turn him down!). This could be a very useful starting point for a exchange of views that can take us into a different space….

    Thanks again guys and keep up the good work, with best wishes from the UK.

    Best, Cordelia

    PS. I have always liked Roving Bandit’s comment on the matter:

    “Next time you hear “does aid work?” think “does policy work?”. It’s a silly question, and obvious when you put it like that.”

    PPS. (This is a personal note from me- without representing any corporate views!)

  • In developing countries, Aid is an important element to overcoming poverty and hunger on the one hand, and promoting inclusive develpoment on the other. However, one of the problems I have observed in the case of some African states (Liberia in particular) is that aid is channeled through develpment partners whose adminstrative and overhead cost (salaries, housing, hazards, amenities, overall operational cost, et al.) far outwieght the funds allocated for the the real development targets. Can developing countries redirect aid to national budgetary support to suport the specific development targets for which aid is provided?

  • At some point the big men of development turn into rock stars – and that’s when the polemics start. At this level we’re beyond the sensible nuanced approaches to finding what works, and expecting that from Sachs or Easterly is about as sensible as expecting Bono to produce a coherent explaination of a Cobb-Douglas production function. It’s a shame the hubris now stops them both from drawing useful and replicable lessons instead of defending their own experiments and hence intellectual legacy (esp. Sachs). I guess it’s a spectacle, but it’s not really helpful to us in the business.

  • I’ve seen a few people complain about the binary nature of the debate and how this is bad for aid discourse (mostly people from CGD). However I disagree completely. While it may be boring for many aid practitioners and researchers, it is a new exciting field for many, many more. Reading about RCTs in Indian education is not exactly a great introduction to aid and development, nor is reading Riddell’s book. Reading two polemic academics who write well for the layman is exciting and so different to many other parts of economics (you try and find a vigorous debate like this which is easily understandable in macro or labour economics).

    The only reason I took a course of development and aid was after reading Sachs’ end of poverty and wanting to know more. The aid sector should be thankful this debate occurs, as it draws people in, something other fields would beg for. There is nothing to say these two can’t have their books and foreign policy articles while others explore frontier research agendas. I say give them more platforms and the future of aid and development will be the winner.

    • Thanks for the comment Henry.

      It actually took me a while to write that last paragraph because I myself am in two minds about the debate. On the one hand I think the preeminence of these two voices leaves little room for more nuanced debate and opinions. On the other, you do have a point that the debate is a great introduction for people interested in the field of development. But I’m still not sure if that means the debate needs to go on for 8 years. Their original works are still pretty relevant today and great introductory texts to the field, but maybe it’s time for them to step out of the limelight and make room for some other views.

      • I’m also in two minds on this. On the one hand, it’s good to get any space in the media for aid at all and to engage people on these issues. On the other hand, the debate is oversimplified in its ‘either/or’ approach. It strips away the how and and why from the discussion of why aid does or doesn’t work.

        Clearly the best way for us to decide whether the debate is a positive or negative for public engagement in aid and development issues would be for Sachs and Easterly to write some convincing posts on the topic for the Devpolicy Blog… 😉

        • I’d be happy to write for the website on HOW to make aid effective. There are tremendously powerful lessons in the successes of aid for public health in the past decade.

          Best regards,

          Jeff Sachs

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