Jeff Sachs’s Reality Distortion Field

I’m beginning to think that Steve Jobs’s famous Reality

Distortion Field has a rival: that of Jeffrey Sachs.

Nina Munk profiles

Sachs in the latest Vanity Fair:

If you spend enough time with Sachs, as I have, you may come around to his

point of view: if the history of international development is a history of

failure, it is because too many people in the field are complacent, or incompetent,

or not accountable.

Sachs certainly has little time for his critics:

Another standard argument against increasing foreign aid goes like this:

we’ve spent billions already, and so far we’ve had almost no return on our


Responding to this defeatist line of thinking, Sachs argues that foreign aid

has failed to produce obvious results because we have spent too little. In

his favorite analogy he compares the current situation in Africa to a forest

fire: if you try to put out the fire with one hose, and the fire continues

to rage, do you conclude that fighting fires is hopeless? From Sachs’s point

of view, the only logical conclusion is: you don’t have enough firefighters.

Sachs’s modus operandi is very much to keep his eyes on what he’s

trying to achieve, and not get bogged down in debates with his critics. (Britain’s

Hilary Benn is a good example of someone who seems much more willing

to engage in the is-aid-effective debate.) Sachs is very good at taking his

Reality Distortion Field and applying it to philanthropists, to presidents,

to anybody who can help increase aid assistance in general and the money flowing

to his Millenium Village Project in particular. It’s surely a good use of Sachs’s


But, as Tyler

Cowen says, Sachs isn’t scalable – and it’s far from clear that the

Millenium Village Project is scalable either – or even a particularly

efficient use of funds. It can create unhealthy dependencies, as well as uncomfortable

and even violent power struggles; Munk hints at this, but a much more detailed

and forensic examination of one project is provided by Sam

Rich, in the Wilson Quarterly. Rich spent much less time with Sachs than

Munk did, and spent much more time with poor villagers than Munk did –

and that seems to have made a lot of difference.

My view on Sachs is that he’s indubitably a force for good in the world. Munk

doesn’t even get to the many other projects he has going at Columbia’s Earth

Institute, which is mentioned once in the opening paragraph and then never mentioned

again. On global warming issues alone the Earth Institute is a magnificent place,

and Sachs’s interdisciplinary dreams are most inspiring things.

On the other hand, on the more narrow (but still very large) issue of development

aid for Africa, I do think that Sachs’s ego and seeming inability to defer to

real experts in the development field is a problem. He’s very good at raising

money. But is he the best person to spend it?

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