An article by renowned journalist Howard French entitled “The Not-So-Great Professor: Jeffrey Sachs’ Incredible Failure to Eradicate Poverty in Africa” takes a swipe at a poverty eradication drive dubbed the Millennium Villages Programme, depicting it as a total failure.
The article published last week, which is inspired by a book ‘The Idealist; Jeffrey Sachs and the quest to end poverty’ written by Nina Munk, another American journalist, leaves a lot to be desired, to say the least.
I will focus my critique on the article, not the book, which interestingly, the author painstakingly took five years researching on the so-called millennium villages, but could only conveniently come up with one of the 14 model villages, which, in their own words, is a failed venture.
The village programme was conceptualised at the beginning of the 21st century and Rwanda, in 2003, agreed to scale up this project, under the 2020 Umurenge programme, and subsequently, Mayange Sector in Bugesera district was chosen.
In his article, French accused Sachs of applying textbook economics in his quest to demonstrate that poverty can be put to an end, if the ‘right medicine is applied’.
French’s rather lengthy article is visibly indicative of a man bent on seeing the others fail, notwithstanding the facts on the ground, where at one point he boldly alludes to “Sach’s obsession with Africa”.
In my line of work, I have regularly travelled to Mayange – perhaps with special interest because this is where I happen to trace my roots, according to my folks—and I have seen what this formerly desert-like hunger-stricken area has metamorphosed into.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am dwelling on Mayange as one of the villages that have for the past 10 years emerged from the state in which I know it was, to the current state, notwithstanding the economics formula that was applied, after all, textbook economics is the bone of contention in this argument.
I had seen women, making journeys across River Nyabarongo—as it was known then, now River Akagera—with toddlers strapped on their backs, to knock on people’s doors in Kigali seeking food, something that left a bitter taste in my mouth, I guess, after all these are people from my ‘roots’.
The last time I visited the village in June this year—the women I found, made me feel proud as Rwandan and ‘Mayangean’ by blood.
From the weavers of the iconic Agaseke to knitters of assorted products, they have all gone beyond weaving or knitting for survival, to winning contracts with famous clothing lines in New York, yes I mean New York of the United States of America.
Now, going back to the article by Mr. French, in the entire piece, and I stand to be corrected by whoever has taken the time to read it all, I failed to get any tangible solution he provides.
The article quotes other professors with yet other theories, void of any local voice, telling us where it went wrong –in the one village that was picked on called Dertu in Kenya – and what could have been done to make The Prof’s model a success.
My interpretation was of a man telling the other “who are you to change status quo in a cursed continent?”
Now, like I said earlier, I want to reason as a realist, not the idealist that the Prof was accused to be and I will simply compare the life in Mayange before MVP and after.
One may reason that the village may have developed anyway, (which I do not in any way dispute, given this government’s track record) but my trips to the area, over the years showed me that the MVP has made a significant contribution to this story.
The Mayange women referred to earlier have been taught how to get a rod, go to the river, and catch a fish, rather than handing them smoked fish on a platter and besides affording mituweri (medical insurance) for themselves and their children, they are saving with banks, have invested in real estate, and life has never been better.
They themselves will tell you how ready they are to move on come next year when the programme folds.
In making the critique of the MVP model, French fails to touch the most important aspect, how good governance has contributed towards the success of this programme and he would have seen this in Mayange, had he or Ms Munk not been bent on seeing the failure of the programme.
So Mr. French, I guess you will have to give me something more to work with here, besides assassinating the character of this man, who happens to be your faculty colleague at Columbia University.
The writer is an editor with The New Times.