Thursday, September 19, 2013

Yet Another Human Perfectibility Scheme Dashed

A review of a new book that begins "like a celebration of a boy genius" but truns out to be "a devastating portrait of hubris and its consequences" — The Not-So-Great Professor: Jeffrey Sachs’ Incredible Failure to Eradicate Poverty in Africa. An excerpt:
    The weakness that dooms most plans like the Millennium Villages to failure is best summarized by the Yale political scientist James C. Scott, in his book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. For Scott, the culprit is “high-modernist ideology,” which he defines as a “muscle-bound … self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of human production, [and] the growing satisfaction of human needs.”

    In Scott’s account, high modernism inflicted its greatest damage in vast utopian campaigns like Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, the collectivization of farms in the Soviet Union, and compulsory villagization in Tanzania and Ethiopia. In each of these cases, schemes promising massive progress were forced on people by an authoritarian state that was willing and able to use “the full weight of its coercive power” to bring its designs into being.

    Though much smaller in scale than these examples—and certainly less deadly—the Millennium Villages Project proceeded along similar lines. “No administrative system,” Scott writes, “is capable of representing any existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematized process of abstraction and simplification.” In the case of the Millennium Villages, this simplification was embodied by the 147-page handbook, written by academics in New York with insufficient regard for hard-won local knowledge. What Sachs failed to recognize, more than any individual research finding, is that rural Africa is thick with the wreckage of failed development projects more or less imposed by outsiders, and that Western powers have adopted new, often contradictory aid policies every decade or so, never publicly acknowledging their mistakes or owning up to the collateral damage they’ve inflicted on African lives.

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