Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Sachs - Easterly Debate

This one's dedicated to two of my dear friends who have walked similar paths of TCK, Macalester Academics, and awesomeness as I did, KabCity and ADT.

I wonder if Sachs and Easterly really hate each other.  Sachs is up in Columbia, while Easterly is in NYU.  They have different opinions on their visions of development, and was quite open about their disagreements publicly via book reviews / rebuttals / etc.  I'm not quite aware of the full extent of the debate, as I don't have a crush on either one of them.  What is similar though, is that they are authors with serious Economic backgrounds, making their books quite dull and overly reliant on statistics - i.e. hey I did this regression and it shows that i'm correct, disregarding the reliability of the measurement, the direction of casuality, blablhallbstuffstatisticsnerdsliketotalkaboutblabh.

Ah, I digress, the joy of writing without a coherent outline.  Though problematic in its parsimony, I'd like to present this debate using the metaphor of a tractor.

1. Jeff works in the development industry, and upon a survey of a dirt poor village, claims that what those people need is an awesome tractor.  Upon return, he pulls out all these population statistics all over the world, uses various ratios to find out how many tractors are needed to save the world, finds out that it's about three times more than what the rich countries spend on ODA, and then holds hands with Bono to yell "we can do this."

2. William works in the development industry, and upon a survey, sees that tractors are used as playgrounds.  In another case, he sees a farmer who learned how important a tractor is, took up loans, bought a tractor, used it for a while, fixed it a couple of times, and managed a living. 

I would describe Sachs' approach as detached materialism.  His vision of development clearly focuses on material goods - buildings, products, tractors, and most importantly, capital.  He often ignores the role of people, institutions, outsiders, governments, culture and other non-material entities, as if the reason for poverty is what is most visibly evident - the lack of material goods.

Sachs' approach is also detaced, much like a scientist experimenting on his subjects.  The scientist, the observer, is not part of the project, not accountable to the results of the petri dish, and partially deaf to what the petri dish is saying.  This is quite evident in the various Millenium Village Projects, the product of Sachs' visions.  The website boats its efficiency and cost-effective measures, but it never mentions how many UNDP staff are employed - possibly millions in wages, insurance, air fare, living stipend, education stipend, etc, compared to the peanuts spent in the village.

Easterly envisions development to be integrated to the economy.  The economy endures and continues.  Material goods are part of the economy, but so are maintenance, sellers, advertisers, and regulators.  More importantly, it also includes concepts such as incentive, long-term planning, personal investment/effort, and ownership.

Much reptition has been made on the Sachs - Easterly Debate.  It's its first appearance on the Tomzanian, so I give the score:

Sachs 0 - 1 Easterly.

I am unfair with the use of imagery, but so is my commentary.


A-Diddy said...

Thanks for the shout out Tomzanian! I really like the nature of this post - as someone who is an avid Easterly fan, I of course am going to side with Easterly on this one. I will say though is that I don't think that they really hate each other - but I think my experience (living in NYC and attending one of institutions where one of them works) shows that Sachs is much more reluctant to debate with Easterly in person. I think they prefer to keep their debates in a purely academic sphere (well Sachs seems to want that more than Easterly).

That being said, the only thing that I wish Easterly did was provide more concrete solutions for what he sees are the problems to development. It is easy to say that the development has not and will not continue to work if we pursue it in the same old-fashion manner of giving more and more aid. So if that doesn't work, what will? The development structure has to change somehow, but we need concrete solutions to that.

On another note, I was just reading the most recent Aid Watch posts on Sachs'Millennium Villages Project - its a really interesting debate - one that includes the rigor of social science with the academic discourse of development theory. It will be interesting to see what will happen to to the MVP after numerous journalists, scholars and even development workers have written about them.

Great post and keep it up! I would be really interested to hear more about this topic - especially since you are in the field and have a first hand view of the debate.

Kabs said...

Woohoo another link to kabcity on the www!

The Sachs-Easterly debate just gets me excited about when behavioural economics will finally converse with development economics. I am actually waiting to decide about grad school stuff until this happens, which I hope will be soon.

Basically, the Washington Consensus, MVPs, and other big initiatives have, I think, wrongly assumed that goal-seeking ("rational") behaviour is uniform across peoples and societies. As we discussed earlier, long-term thinking is not an inherent human characteristic. I think there is a lot of amazing potential to understand decision making in different contexts, and build projects based on that. Obviously, the Easterly approach is more likely to accommodate this than the Sachs approach. However, I really do admire Sachs' aid-generation, and I think we shouldn't ignore the importance of outside resources in development.

TK said...

ADT and Kabs, thank you for the valuable comments. Debates and comments on the SE Debate can reach the infinity. Commenting on something that involves rich/poor, and something as complex as development (synonomous to life) has a multiplying effect.

ADT - the personal NY experience is helpful. In defense of Sachs, it would be harder for him to be in a debate, as his ideas have not been "tested" thoroughly, while Easterly's examples of failures are abundant.

As for the personal perspective, I do have a very narrow view, but I do have two examples. My school received some linux computers and a whole bunch of second hand books, both initiatives of the UK. The two are underutilized for several reasons: lack of knowledge on their use, no effort from the school to obtain them, no input from the school on what they need. The computers, after a year now, have broken down, and prior, there were no classes, instructors, maintenance, etc. The books are underutilized because many are too difficult, and the teachers are unfamiliar with them as well. Both were material driven projects with a lot of passion, but the results are dismal.

Kabir - your introduction to different goals and decision making process is quite new to me. I cannot even fathom how they can be incorporated. Again a personal perspective: I have seen the donor recipients be too passive, and merely being happy about what the receive from the developed world that they idolize. I suppose even donor recipients are having a massive identity crisis on how they make goals and decide matters.

As a final note, I think one of the plagues of the development discourse is the abundance of false dichotomies. By that, I refer not only to the rigid constructions of rich/poor, me/other, but also Sachs/Easterly, large scale / small scale, macro-economy / piece meal projects, etc.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify, in economics "rationality" is defined as goal-seeking behaviour. In a lot of economic theory, it is assumed that this equals making more money in the long term. However, this is not necessarily how people behave. Behavioural economics looks to reconcile economic theory with the reality of different (individual or societal) choice-making structures.

Tory said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tory said...

Watch this clip (promise me, it's awesome and rather short)

Sachs and Easterly debate is interesting enough to be entertained in college education, but highly impractical and lacks substantial mechanical remarks to the solution to poverty in Africa. I like what Moyo says in the clip, "Africa is to development, what Mars is to NASA." Look at the case studies of East Asian countries, or post-Soviet, or even the case of post WWII european countries.. what drove development is not an economic analysis on how to improve the economy, it is the determination and the will-power of the state and the people under a functioning political and economic system. I refuse to side with Sachs nor Easterly because the western-intervention never alleviated - or more or less contributed to - current economic and political catastrophe. I like the data that Easterly presents in one of his articles, that though there has been over a trillion dollars spent on development in Africa, Africa still averages 0% growth in economic development.

The Washington Consensus, Millennium Villages, the UN's Millennium Goals... oh please.. If Africa REALY wants development, it will get its development eventually. If there is any anything that the West can do, it is to open their market for African goods by lowering tariffs and removing sanctions, to discern when a corrupt regime asks for money for "development's sake," and accept more African students to their tertiary education system.

TK said...

I think the juxtaposition of East Asia / Africa is to aid skeptics as Mars is to Nasa. It is so easy to look at the outcomes of decreptitude, look at time series trend of aid money, and say aid is dead. Moyo lists why aid sucks, but with any political system complex, I'm sure rebuttals on confounding factors will be equally long.

I would agree that the economic successes of (insert example) are most definitely not attributed to aid, but aid does have a place in development. Of the countless examples, Marshall plan is a good one. Korea's kyungbu highway was also built from japanese money - technically reparations, but we can imagine aid being spent properly. Another good example is TZ. Back in the day TZ did this horrible villagization, much like the Soviets did, and it just blew its economy up in tatters. If it weren't for the int'l presence, I would imagine TZ to be in worse situation. Even today, aid money is improving secondary education in TZ.

I think the desire for development is widespread, and though not universal, it has a strong enough presence in all societies. But with the West possessing the (i can't believe im going to say this) hegemony of knowledge on all matters of development, those desires are often not materialized.

I also want to pose the sub-saharan african uniqueness to the problem. As I see, prior to European colonization, economies and societies in sub-saharan Africa were at a smaller scale, thus the history of modern economic practices and entrepreneurship are much shorter.

I would like to end this comment but providing a preview on an upcoming post: pessimism and optimism. I say pessimism first because it is easy to be cynical. Looking around my life here, failing students, not enough water, etc., makes me at times feel: man, when will development come. But the pessimism can cloud the reality. During 2000-2010, six/seven out of ten fastest growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa, and the prediction for 2010-2015 doesn't look too different. Even my colleagues were surprised at this fact.

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