“Let’s Make Africa an Adventure”

by Sasha Alyson

How does a country develop? Lots of people have offered answers, some with great confidence.

Most confident of all was Jeffrey Sachs, the superstar professor who headed Columbia University’s Earth Institute. In 2005, he created the Millennium Villages Project, through which fourteen districts in Africa would prove that his theories worked. This is the second in a series of stories about the MVPs and the aid industry. The first story is here: The Great Professor.

Despite much talk about being “community-based,” the MVP was run from New York. The Millennium Villages Handbook, published by Columbia’s Earth Institute, spelled out, for each of 14 diverse village groups in ten African countries, just how to achieve what no one else had done: End extreme poverty in five years. The 147-page handbook listed 29 contributors. A strong majority were affiliated with Columbia University and had backgrounds in academia, the U.N., INGOs, and occasional non-profits. Slightly more than half had at some point lived in the Global South but few had their roots there.(1)

The Education chapter was written by two Columbia graduates. One had spent a four-month internship at a U.N. project in Uganda. The other, from what I could find, went directly from Teachers’ College at Columbia University to the Earth Institute at Columbia University. And I don’t fault them for agreeing to write the chapter. Had the world’s most famous economist offered me, at age 25, a vital role in ending poverty, I would have assumed that I must be qualified even if I was hazy about how that could possibly be the case, and grabbed the opportunity.

But they were not qualified for this job. Nor was whoever thought that two recent Columbia University graduates could, and should, write a detailed plan of action telling ten varied countries on a different continent how to improve their schools. The Education chapter presents a schedule showing what activities to begin in each of the five years:

Year 1: Improve school infrastructure, Recruit teachers, Address gender equity, Outreach to poorest of poor (and three more things).

Year 2: Teacher development, Income-generating activities, Partner with health sector programs (and three more things).

Year 3: Boarding school strategies for girls, Literacy programs for women of child-bearing age.

This is the kind of thing that gives ivory towers a bad name.

Moreover, other questions also needed to be asked, and the answers would vary by country and region. Does anyone even know an effective method of teaching in these particular villages? Does anyone know how to train teachers to do that? If so, why isn’t it happening already? If not, isn’t that a big obstacle?

And a bigger question: Is it a good idea to copy the external features of the school system used in the United States, which isn’t all that successful in America, into ten countries of Africa? How’s that going so far? Are there better approaches? The MVP accepted the U.N. groupthink that getting more children into school was the essence of education. If kids weren’t learning enough,  the solution was to put “teacher training” on the schedule, and offer free lunches to lure more children.

It’s akin to deciding you’ll build a kitten. So you round up people with biology degrees, and get them working. The Skeleton Committee specifies how many vertebrae you’ll need. Before you know it, you have a plan. But you don’t have a kitten. For that, you should start with two cats, and you won’t need much else. The Skeleton Committee, however, won’t be happy to lose their jobs.

The U.N. ignored the question of whether children learned anything in the schools they were being pressured to attend. So it’s no surprise that the MVP ignored it too. But many voices were already protesting this idiocy. Just because the U.N. had made a bad decision while setting its goals in 2000-02, should that error be repeated a half decade later, by another New York institution? Wasn’t the MVP listening to dissident voices?

Perhaps not, because it was a remarkably in-grown group. The Millennium Villages Project was directed by Jeffrey Sachs. It was run from the Earth Institute (Director: Jeffrey Sachs) at Columbia University. It was an initiative of Millennium Promise (Director and board president: Jeffrey Sachs; the CEO was his lieutenant, John McArthur). They were all working to meet the Millennium Development Goals. The original plans for addressing these goals were prepared by the U.N.’s Millennium Project (Director: Jeffrey Sachs; Deputy Director: John McArthur.) And the Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General on these goals? That would be Jeffrey Sachs.

According to Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins, who was on Millennium Promise board, MP was “charged with monitoring” the MVP.(2) Other board members included Angelina Jolie, plus executives and former executives from Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and other big firms. There was one person from Africa, though at that point he was working with Sachs at Columbia University. If the phrase “colonial mentality” hasn’t popped into your mind yet, then I need to stop being so subtle. This was the wrong place to look for fresh ideas about ending poverty in Africa.

As seen on MTV

That, however, was not a message that Jeffry Sachs wanted to hear. He did not even try to get African insight. When the MTV crew visited the local school, the focus was 100% on the new school lunch program, intended to drive up attendance. Children line up for their cup of porridge. “And for a lot of them, this is the only meal for them?” his co-star Angelina Jolie asks. “It can be, most definitely,” replies Sachs.

This is difficult to reconcile with the opening of the video, in which Jolie announces that “the proper farming techniques have provided Kennedy [a farmer] with 20 times the food that he used to produce.” Are the farmers working hard to produce 20 times more food but refusing to share it with their kids? Or are Sachs and Jolie simply saying whatever sounds good at that moment?

They talk with the headmistress, and Jolie gets in the best question of the video: “So you’ve noticed a difference in their performance at school?” The headmistress picks her words carefully: “The difference we see is that everybody is attending school now.” If a subtle message is being sent — and that’s the most that supplicants are allowed to send, under the unwritten rules of the aid industry — then it was entirely lost on Sachs. He was the world-famous economist, she was an African village headmistress who had landed a bit part in his movie.

“Aw, isn’t that great,” he purrs. “Simple things, like having a midday meal. That brings the children from all over the community because the parents say, ‘Well, if there’s a meal there, I can’t afford not to send my child to school!’” He is greatly amused by the cleverness of it all. If children had previously not gone to school – whether because it bored them to death, or everyone knew they were learning nothing at all, or parents needed the children to help with work, or they were learning something useful by apprenticing with an uncle who repaired motorbikes – no matter. Jeffrey Sachs wanted them in school, and now everyone knew who was boss here. Since the headmistress didn’t say what she was supposed to, Sachs says it for her: “Now they can concentrate.”

Nowhere within the Sachs organizations was there someone to say, “Jeff, remember we talk a lot about being community-based. Maybe we should re-shoot that scene, and this time you can pretend to listen.”

The co-stars head off to mingle with children eating the lunch. “This porridge has a lot of sugar,” says one boy. Sachs and Jolie and the students laugh and feel happy about that. The children needed better education. The world-famous poverty expert gave them a sugary soup kitchen.

* * *

For several years, popular media in the West generally gave flattering coverage to the MVP. At last, good news from Africa! Bono had spoken of the need to “make Africa less of a burden, more of an adventure”; now he could feel better, too. Some reports explained that the whole thing was still really just a trial; others thought that was more nuance than their audience wanted and focused only on the “remarkable results” (Huffington Post), “[Aid] programs that work,” (New York Times) and the “thriving community in a sea of poverty,” (The National News, Kenya), essentially just rewriting press releases issued by the MVP in the early years.  

Three items from the Tommy Hilfiger “Promise Collection.” Consumers were encouraged to influence MVP development spending in Africa by their choice of fashion.

  • Madonna visited a Millennium Village in Malawi, and CBS News followed with a camera.
  • Angelina Jolie set up a Millennium Village in Cambodia — the first in Asia.
  • The Guardian published a story about Ruhiira: “Havens of hope: The Ugandan villages on target to meet millennium development goals.”
  • South Korea announced that it would fund MV’s in two countries.
  • The New York Times quoted both critics and fans, but the overall tone of a 2010 story was summed up by the headline: “Shower of Aid Brings Flood of Progress.”
  • Scientfic American published an article by Sachs, subtitled “A decade’s worth of targeted accomplishments shows extreme poverty can be eliminated.”
  • Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger promised $2 million to support the Ruhiira project.
  • Shortly after that, Millennium Promise named fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger as its first MDG Global Leader.
  • Tommy Hilfiger told consumers that they, too, could help end poverty. Buy the Congo swimshort from the Hilfiger collection and a portion of your purchase will go to agricultural development; buy the Paarl bikini and you’ll support environmental work.(3)
  • Parade magazine interviewed Sachs about how “America could lead the way to help Africa get out of the trap of poverty — and even improve our own security situation.”

Meanwhile, Sachs made a fateful decision. Nina Munk, who had written the Vanity Fair profile of Sachs in 2007, wanted to write a book about the man and his plan. Both Sachs and Munk must have expected her largely positive tone to continue, and Sachs agreed to let her travel with him as she covered the saga of the Millennium Villages Project.


Top illustration: Sachs, Bono, Madonna, Tommy Hilfiger, and Angelina Jolie all got what celebrities crave the most: The spotlight. What did Africans get? They got to be the backdrop without which these celebrities could not have displayed their virtue.

1. As of 2023, clicking this link will download the document: Millennium Villages Handbook.

2. Jenkins’s journal about his MVP experiences appeared online under the title “Uganda Journal” at http://president.nd.edu/writings-addresses/2007-writings/uganda-journals/ but these pages have since been taken down. (And not because they were old. His speech honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, posted the same month, is still there.)

3. The jaw-dropping presumption that Western consumers should feel entitled to shape aid spending through their bikini-buying decisions was reported by Japhy Wilson in Jeffrey Sachs: The Strange Case of Dr. Shock and Mr. Aid.

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