Archive - Oct 30, 2013


Third World Philanthropy

Oh, the wonders of the interwebs. Because I follow the writer Nina Munk on Facebook, (I met her while we were on the same summer program at Cambridge University in 1986 and haven't talked to her since) I knew that she was going to deliver a lecture in Albuquerque today on her latest book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty,   I made a point to come through the city in time to attend. 

I think Nina was a little freaked out by seeing a face from her distant past at the lecture, but it was well worth my while to hear her talk about the efforts of American academics and philanthropists, specifically Sachs, in imposing their ideas of economic development on African villages. 

To study the matter, Munk spent seven years researching and following two of Sachs' projects. She actually lived in the remote, primitive villages which were chosen for the project and watched, through several visits over time, the effects of the money on the way of life of nomadic Somalis, in one instance, and more agricultural Ugandans in a second instance. 

Nina has made something of a career out of puncturing the hubris of famous movers and shakers, most prominently Jerry Levin of Time Warner and Steve Case, the founder of AOL. After ripping Levin to shreds in a book, he called her and said, "You know, Nina, I think you hit the nail on the head." 

No such luck with Sachs, who is pretty upset with Munk's portrayal of the mixed record of his huge philanthropic initiatives. 

Nina pointed to a typical event: Sachs' group dug a well in the desert, fitted it with a pump, and then left. One year later, the pump failed. Nobody knew how to fix it. Nobody had parts. And nobody in Sachs' organization seemed too concerned. 

The human cost? Women were leaving their children and walking with a donkey over 30 miles to get water, only to find there was none. They were in tears, as they were in drought and near starvation. 

Where the wells were dug, economic activity did indeed spring up. However, you could argue that it was more disruptive than helpful, especially without follow through. 

In another village, the people grew corn, but yields were pretty pitiful. Western philanthropists came in and gave the farmers fertilizer, a concept unheard of in this region, and provided them with better varieties of corn. The farmers quadrupled their yield. What happened? The price collapsed. In fact, the people didn't even like corn! In the end, the worthless corn was dumped on the ground because there was no way to get it to a market which valued the crop. 

So, I asked, are their any philanthropies Munk to which Munk would donate after all her research? 

Yes! She replied with enthusiasm. She does donate. But only to small philanthropies with specific, small goals--like one which provides schoolkids meals. The meals draw the hungry kids to school and makes the parents more eager to let the kids go to school. One less mouth to feed. 

I haven't read the book yet, so it is not wise to sum it up here, but Munk made several interesting points. 

•A lot of progress has been made in eliminating poverty in the past twenty years. In fact, world poverty has been cut in half. However, one must consider what that means in terms of actual money for those who have been thus uplifted: If you have more than $1.25 per day to live on, you are no longer in poverty! 

•Most of the progress against poverty has been made in India and China. 

•The Chinese are coming in and building infrastructure in Africa, thus winning billions of dollars of African business. Our foreign aid, both from our government and from philanthropies, does nothing of the sort. However, the price of Chinese involvement is they treat their African workers horribly. 

•Ironically, despite Sachs' spotty record on fighting poverty--all indications are that the charismatic professor has moved on to other concerns--his goal of eliminating poverty, as defined above, by 2025 may be achieved. 

Nina Munk is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. Nina has always had an interest in those in poverty. But don't mistake her for a nun. She has a sharp tongue, both in person and on paper, and because she has run in the circles of the wealthy, famous and ambitious all her life, she doesn't give the oligarchs and celebrities the fawning respect they are used to. 

She has a contempt for the annual reports which go out to donors to large philanthropies. Mostly bullshit, she says. And she is awfully cynical (rightly so) about people, such as Sachs (you remember him running over to Eastern Europe to help the new governments set up their economies after the Revolutions of 1989), who are confident that they know what is best for other cultures. 

The lecture was given in an odd venue. Although the announcement made it look like it was an event for the general public, it was given at a medical school and I actually had difficulty getting in. (Three policement were shot and injured yesterday in ABQ, and their families were using the building for peace and quiet from the press.) When I did find the event, the room was filled with a bunch of doctors, many in scrubs, and about three lay people, including me. 

But it sure was an interesting break in a long day of driving. And it was all due to technology-induced serendipity: I would never have found out about the lecture without Facebook, and I would never have found the building if I wasn't directed to the front door by the lady inside my iPhone. 

Tomorrow, Tucson.