Idealism Vs. Realism: The Need for Accountability

Last Thursday, the Hudson Institute hosted a discussion with Nina Munk on her book The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. The book follows Sachs’ work to end poverty through Millennium Villages. The imgresproject provided improved fertilizer and mosquito nets to fourteen rural villages in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many in the development community view the project as a failure because of its inability to create sustainable development. Munk used the discussion to highlight the overarching themes in her book and to answer audience questions about her experience working with Sachs.

One major theme repeatedly appeared throughout the discussion: NGO and development accountability. Munk attributed a large portion of the Millennium Village failures to a lack of accountability. According to Munk, throughout the project Sachs refused to take the advice of on-the-ground development workers. He ignored the varying cultures, infrastructures, and economies of each village and how that would impact the individual development of each village. Quantitatively, the project seemed to be a success. It increased the corn production of villages and reduced starvation. But the increased corn production did not translate into long-term economic gains. The starving villagers were fed but what the project did not solve was the lack of a market or infrastructure to sell corn.

Munk claims that Sachs’ project needed an accountability structure. There were no measures to evaluate the success of the project beyond the quantitative numbers. There was no consequence for a failed venture and even now Sachs refuses to acknowledge the shortcomings of the project.  She equated the Millennium Village to a game of whack-a-mole. One problem would be solved only for six more problems to crop up. An accountability structure could have evaluated the project from the beginning and addressed its shortcomings in a timely fashion.

Sachs promoting the Millennium Village Project
Sachs promoting the Millennium Village Project

During the discussion Munk put forth the question of how to translate low hanging fruit into sustainable development beyond simple quantitative measures. An evaluative structure needs to be in place to measure the holistic success of development projects. The development community cannot afford to base success on purely quantitative measures. Munk claims the development community has a fear of failure and as a result does not acknowledge its mistakes. Making a humorous, yet genuine, suggestion, Munk proposed every organization should have a “Failures” section on its website. This way there is transparency across the development community and it can continue to learn from its past mistakes.

One attendee brought up a great question concerning the accountability of publicly traded companies compared to non-profits and development work. If an official in a publicly traded company breaks the law or creates a failing project, he is held accountable, whether it be through fines, prison time, or unemployment. Why then does the development community not have the same punishments for failure? There are no consequences for organizations creating unsuccessful development projects. The people who suffer most are those that are supposed to benefit from development projects. Should an industry that deals with human livelihood have strict punishments for failure?

The point of accountability is especially salient considering the financial outlook on development. As Munk described it, the amount of money, private or public, put towards development is not going to radically change in the coming years. It maintains consistent, incremental growth. Development work needs an accountability structure to ensure that this money is not going to waste. Munk claims the development community needs to be upfront about what it can and cannot accomplish so that it does not waste money on impossible projects that have already failed in the past.

Please click here to watch the full discussion with Nina Munk.

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