Global Policy Forum

No "Magic Bullets" to End Poverty,

United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks
March 20, 2006

In 2005 economist Jeffrey Sachs presented an action plan to meet the UN's poverty-slashing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, which included practical and affordable interventions such as bed-nets to fight malaria, vaccinations to combat infectious diseases, the provision of anti-AIDS drugs, fertilisers to improve crop yields and drilling wells to provide safe drinking water.

Sachs's action plan is being implemented in several hamlets in Malawi, Kenya and Ethiopia, and forms the basis of the UN Millennium Village Project, in which research is being carried out by the Earth Institute of Columbia University, with financial support from the Japanese government, to find a model for fighting poverty at village level. Sachs, who heads the UN Millennium Project and the Earth Institute, has been criticised for suggesting strategies that have been implemented before and failed.

In a wide-ranging interview with IRIN, Sachs defended his plan and provided some details on how the project is going to help poor countries help themselves.

QUESTION: Critics have claimed that your poverty reduction strategies are in essence a collection of development policies that have been tried and failed in the past.

ANSWER: It is more accurate to say that our strategies are a collection of development policies that have been tried and have succeeded in the past. The Millennium Project has identified a large number of proven, highly effective, low-cost interventions that can make a huge difference in meeting the MDGs by tapping into expert networks in health, education, gender, agronomy, hydrology and engineering, among other areas of expertise.

Our recommendations build on success stories, albeit success stories that have rarely been scaled up to full national impact because of the lack of needed funding for national-scale programmes. There are also a number of other characteristics of our recommendations - the project takes an integrated approach to the problems facing the extreme poor.

There are no 'magic bullets', no single solution that will put an end to global poverty; achieving the MDGs is possible only if many needs are addressed simultaneously and at scale. The Millennium Project has also identified several quick wins - interventions such as the mass distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets and school feeding programmes - that could be undertaken rapidly and effectively to improve and save the lives of millions.

Importantly, the Millennium Project has shown that all of this can be done at very low cost: meeting the MDGs would require less than 0.7 percent of a rich country's gross national product, the amount of official development assistance the rich countries have committed to giving repeatedly in recent decades, and most recently as part of the Monterrey Consensus in 2002.

Q: The Millennium Project has begun working with the UN system in selected countries to help identify the best ways to integrate MDG targets and timelines into national poverty-reduction strategies. What lessons have been learnt?

A: The Millennium Project is currently supporting around a dozen countries in preparing MDG-based national development strategies, and has had a rich and rewarding engagement with the governments, other partners and civil society in these countries. As a project, this experience has informed our overall messages and recommendations in an important way - it is quite clear that national governments are strongly committed to the MDGs.

In most countries local communities have also demonstrated that known, proven and effective technologies exist to achieve the goals. Indeed, many countries already have clear, ambitious programmes to achieve the goals. Most of these countries, however, are too poor to finance the needed investments on their own, and thus need more external assistance.

Another important lesson is that the quality of aid matters tremendously. It is most effective when it is spent on tangible, measurable goods and services, so that both donor and recipient can be held accountable for the effective implementation of aid programmes. Aid should also be predictable and long-term, and often must cover not only capital costs but also recurrent expenditures, for example, nursing and agricultural extension, with the aim of building local capacity over time.

Q: The Millennium Village research project offers a model for fighting poverty at the village level. How do you measure the success of the model?

A: The success of the Millennium Village model is to be judged according to the MDGs, and also whether the community achieves a path of self-sustaining economic growth. We expect the communities to achieve the MDGs by 2015, and perhaps by 2010. We also expect the communities to start a process of dynamic saving and capital accumulation that permits long-term economic growth, and for this to happen as well before 2015.

Q: The model village approach seems to focus on stopping the corrosive impact of poverty, but will economic growth come from the villages, or should we be looking at measures that can create the environment for growth, such as investment and tax laws?

A: Economic growth requires an adequate policy environment to promote saving and investment and trade, but also a basic infrastructure that is adequate for the private sector. Thus, good rules are not enough. A modern economy requires a healthy population, a literate workforce, a food-secure community, safe drinking water, and roads, power, telecommunications and port facilities to be able to engage in trade. Thus, the debate between 'institutions' versus 'investments' is silly - economies need both adequate institutions and a basic level of investments. In our experience, the investment levels in health, education, food production and infrastructure are currently the most urgent limiting factors in many settings.

Q: There is also a Millennium Cities Project. What are its goals and what are the particular challenges faced by African cities?

A: Millennium Villages address rural development, and the Millennium Cities Project is designed to complement those rural, agriculture-based interventions by enabling regional cities near the villages to be effective markets for the rural areas, and effective export centres for regional and global trade. The Millennium Cities Initiative will work with local governments near the Millennium Villages to attract foreign direct investment, while working with potential international investors to inform them about possible investment opportunities.

Eventually, the Millennium Cities Initiative will also help to develop urban needs assessments in key sectors such as health, education, housing and access to safe water. The needs assessments will form the basis of local investment plans geared towards meeting the MDGs in those cities.

Q: How optimistic are you about finding funding for the various projects?

A: I am optimistic that the Millennium Villages and Millennium Cities will find a widening arc of financial support from both private and public sectors. We have already found a wonderful response from the philanthropic community to support the villages, as well as growing interest among multinational companies concerning job-creating investments in Africa. Now some governments are also expressing their interest in the Millennium Village project - the government of Japan is a major partner in the effort.

More Information on Social and Economic Policy
More General Analysis on Poverty and Development
More Information on The Millennium Summit and Its Follow-Up
More Information on Poverty and Development in Africa


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