For many years as a journalist, I reported on big corporations and people we now refer to as the one percent. Then, in 2006, I read The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs and was inspired by his thesis: that with enough focus, enough determination and enough money, we can “end the suffering of those still trapped by poverty.”
Sachs had a long and distinguished career as an economist, but with the publication of The End of Poverty he became a celebrity. People lined up to hear him speak. He was named to Time’s list of most influential people. He starred in an MTV documentary with Angelina Jolie. By the time I met him in 2006, he had received $120 million from George Soros and other like-minded philanthropists to launch the Millennium Villages Project, a daring five-year experiment designed to test his theories on ending extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.
For six months, on assignment for Vanity Fair, I reported on Sachs’ campaign to end poverty. I sat in on his meetings, heard him give countless speeches and followed him to three African countries. I was moved by the resilience and hopefulness of the people I met. I admired Sachs’ purposefulness and his conviction that with the right approach anything is possible. “We have enough on the planet to make sure, easily, that people aren’t dying of their poverty,” he told me. “That’s the basic truth.”
It struck me then: The one story that mattered was the story of poverty. The six months I initially spent following Sachs stretched to six years and resulted in my book The Idealist. “Above all,” I wrote in my book proposal, “I would like to write a story of hope.”
Immersing myself in the lives of people in two isolated villages in East Africa, I recorded the impact that Sachs’ Millennium Villages Project was having. The more time that went by, the more questions I had. Can people be lifted out of poverty, or do they have to lift themselves? Does foreign aid spur or inhibit good governance? How does sustained economic development take root in villages where there are no roads or power or running water, and where most people are illiterate and unlikely to live past the age of 55?
In his books and in his speeches, Sachs assures audiences that the problem of poverty can be solved by 2025, and that it can be solved “easily.” By contrast, my book makes clear that there is nothing easy about ending poverty. What I concluded is that for all its good intentions, foreign aid is neither the solution to global poverty nor the engine of economic development. There is only so much outsiders can do.
In a dozen villages across Africa, the Millennium Villages Project implemented a series of prescribed “interventions” all at once, following Sachs’ blueprint. In the Ugandan village of Ruhiira, where I did much of my reporting, one of the most vital interventions was the introduction of chemical fertilizers and high-yield corn seeds. On paper, it made good sense. Here, as in much of rural Africa, people’s shambas, or plots of land, are so small and infertile that farmers can barely grow enough food to stay alive.
The results of the intervention seemed fantastic. Agricultural yields more than doubled. Farmers could feed their families and store or sell the surplus corn. There was one problem, though, and it was a big one: With no paved roads or trucks, farmers could not get the corn to market. So they dumped their excess corn on the local market all at once. Prices collapsed. Most farmers sold at a loss. Others, unable to find a buyer, left the corn to rot.
As the years passed, I kept adding to my catalog of well-meaning development projects gone awry: broken water pumps, half-finished health clinics, incompatible machine parts, rusting tractors, roads that led nowhere and pit latrines that had caved in. In a village hospital, I found two brand-new incubators wedged into the corner, still wrapped in plastic. Donated by General Electric, they were a sign of GE’s commitment to helping the world’s poorest people—except that there wasn’t enough electricity in the village to power the machines. In my notebook I scribbled: “Who supplies the spare parts when we leave?”
In Africa, I saw too many well-intentioned outsiders, bolstered by money and certitude, misjudge or oversimplify the complex reality of problems they intended to solve. If we hope to end extreme poverty, we have to do more than provide aid or charity. We need to learn how real, sustained economic development takes root. We have to ask difficult questions and promote rigorous evaluations. To ignore the failures of our humanitarian- and foreign-aid programs is to participate in a kind of collective magical thinking.
Some reviewers have said The Idealist traces my journey from initial optimism to disillusion. I disagree. I am more hopeful than ever about Africa’s future. By nearly any measure, the lives of Africa’s poorest people are improving. Many sub-Saharan African economies are growing quickly. The people I met in Africa opened their lives to me and allowed me to see the world differently, more clearly. In the end, they left me with no doubt that Africans can lift themselves out of poverty.
This story appears in the Fall ’14 Quarterly