The Big Push Falls Short

I just started my first semester at John Hopkins this week and one of my classes is “Economic Growth: The Politics of Development in Asia, Africa and Beyond.” I was happy to see that I owned a few of the books on the “Recommended Reading” list and that virtually all of the authors I had read quite a bit from. As I reviewed the list of authors and resource, I was reminded of this blog post by economist Alex Tabbarok on Jeff Sachs’ plans for African development. Sachs believed that Africa needed a “big push” in public investment to escape the “poverty trap” and spur growth. This led to the Millennium Village Project in 2005. Tabarrok explains,

The initial MVP evaluation claimed great success but simply compared some development indicators before and after in the treated villages without comparing to trends elsewhere. In 2010 such a study was completely out of step with contemporary practices in impact evaluation. Red flag! Clemens and Demombynes showed that comparing to trends elsewhere significantly moderated the impact. A second MVP paper was published in the Lancet but then was quickly retracted when Bump, Clemens, Demombynes and Haddaddemonstrated that it had  significant errors. Clemens and Demombynes wrote a summary piece on the controversy then in an astounding and under-reported scandal the MVP tried to stifle Clemens and Demombynes. The MVP, with Jeff Sachs at the head, also sicced their lawyers on Nina Munk and her book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. More red flags.

Yet, despite all of this controversy and bad behavior, the MVP project continued to move ahead and in 2012, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) funded US $11 million into an MVP in Northern Ghana that ran until December 2016. Under the auspices of the DFID, we now finally have the first in-depth, independent evaluation of one MVP project and it doesn’t look great.

While Sachs and crew saw the outcome in a rosier light, the DFID’s evaluation put it bluntly:

Overall, the MVP in northern Ghana did not achieve the overall MDG target to reduce extreme poverty and hunger at the local level. Where there are attributable changes to the MDG targets, these tended to be the more limited changes than those that will fundamentally improve people’s health, educational and other outcomes. For instance, the project did increase attendance at primary school (Goal 2) but did not go beyond this MDG and improve the learning outcomes of children; the project did increase the proportion of births attended by professionals and women said to be using contraceptive methods (MDG indicators), but it is not possible to assess the effect on maternal health (Goal 5); and the project did increase the number of toilets (a target under Goal 7), but not beyond this MDG in terms of hygiene and sanitation practices. There are, however, exceptions. The project
had a remarkable impact on stunting, which is a long-term health indicator and a predictor of socioeconomic outcomes in adulthood (pg. 162).

Projects like these may have some positive results, but they ultimately look like more Western hubris

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