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March 21, 2005



I think his point is that mid-level strategies are incoherent, inappropriate responses to problems of this sort. His alternative is stated in the article:

"Piecemeal reform, by contrast, motivates specific actors to take small steps, one at a time, then tests whether that small step made poor people better off, holds accountable the agency that implemented the small step, and considers the next small step."

This is a brief description of what some call "The Science of The Long View" as opposed to "The Art of The Long View". The difference is the experimental approach that tests ideas and integrates feedback to determine subsequent tests.

This may not be satisfying since it is a process rather than a plan and by definition predicts neither goals nor milestones, but it is realistic and effective. As noted it is the process that was followed by the now developed or successfully developing nations. Sometimes, as with China, this was a lesson learned the hard way.


The coherent strategy would be the one outlined in JK Galbraith's "Nature of Mass Poverty". However, I suspect the motives of a lof the "piecemeal approach" crowd (and I suspect Easterly in particular because on the four or five occasions on which I've had occasion to check up something he'd said, I've come away with a bad taste in my mouth). It's really quite easy to start with "piecemeal" and end up with an aid budget which is heavy on the "piece" and no damn "meal".


A little Great Leap Forward has never hurt anybody...

Matt Weiner

I've carped on the icons before, so let me say that I really like the Henry icon. It has exactly the right sort of scholarly look once you crop out the spider.

ben wolfson

The current set of icons has been in place since like forever dude. Didn't they used to change with some sort of regularity?


Oh very well, Ben. You have shamed me into it. Tomorrow I shall make us a fresh logo. It's true that we've have this one for months. I used to change them once a week in the old days. (Ah, the flesh grows weak.)

I really need a haircut, too.

Adam Kotsko

I also need a haircut.

I have grown instinctively suspicious of any argument that starts with a call for humility -- arguments that start like that usually end up with little to nothing.

My question: What's the harm in spending a few billion dollars a year for these technocratic projects? In the absense of a better plan (or apparently in the ontological impossibility of a better plan), what harm would there be at least in getting in the habit of spending money on things like planting trees, making sure people don't starve to death, etc.? Because if the first plan doesn't work out perfectly, people will conclude that it's an impossible task and that we should go back to spending our money on making better car commercials? (In all honesty, I do think that car commercials have gotten noticeably better within the last few years; credit where credit is due.)


D^2 and Adam are right to suspect that arguments based on epistemic modesty are excuses for inaction. Bill Easterly, however, is also right to point out that utopian projects have a poor history.

Political scientists here can feel free to correct me, but my impression is that the relationship between aid inputs and development outputs is vexed, and becomes more vexed as one moves away from "piecemeal" approaches.

Sach is proposing an expensive, comprehensive, and not easily tested effort. If we knew that Sach had The Plan, perhaps people would greet it with more enthusiasm. We don't know that, however, and we have prefectly good reasons to doubt it.

How to proceed? Here's my not entirely unserious suggestion. Do a pilot. Pick a country, preferably an isolated one or an island so as to minimize negative feedback effects from neighboring states, and then aply Sach's comprehensive approach. If it works, fantastic: generalize the program. If it doesn't -- or proves massively less efficient than projected, we've learned that at much lesser cost.

Rather than seeking $150 BB to cure poverty, why doesn't Sach assemble 1.5BB and try to fix Madagascar?


One problem doing comparisons here is that "Utopian" has become a meaningless swear word. The entire argument gravid in that word is the grossest sort of question-begging - big project, ergo genocide.

The experiences of the 20th century* are a good reason to avoid utopian solutions that depend on liquidating lots of "bad people." The technocratic merits of Sachs' proposal can be debated (by people smarter than I) but insofar as I haven't heard of any kakocidal proposals therein, talking about (or slyly implying) the unbounded evil of "utopian solutions" is disingenious.

*Okay, quick question: why is it always The 20th Century that is always invoked in these sort of arguments? It's not genocide was invented then. Is it that it was mass murder of white people, or...?

Adam Kotsko

Yes, from what I can tell, Sachs plan isn't "utopian" in any meaningful sense, unless "utopian" is just a word for "probably won't really happen." He has a lot of detailed plans for doing things in our world -- it's technocratic, not utopian. That's not to say that it will succeed, but just to say that I hesitate to qualify all attempts to solve enduring problems as "utopian." I'm sure the attempt to eradicate smallpox seemed utopian at the time, but it worked.

David Weman

depends of your definition of genocide.

the 20th century is recent.


Jeeze louise. So replace "utopian" with "enormously ambitious and comprehensive" -- the points still stand, don't they? No one is saying Sachs wants to insitute national socialism. Lots of people, however, believe he is arguing for a massive, expensive, uncontrolled experiment of his pet ideas. Hey, if the other options for the thrid world is nothing, maybe we should all get behind Sachs. But since his isn't the only option, is it crazy to ask for evidence that his approach can fix a single poor country before we apply it to many of them?

Rob Rushing

Any number of large-scale "utopian" plans were successful in that much-maligned 20th century, such as the eradication of smallpox and polio. I remember reading a few years ago that, because the disease has well-established chronological cycles, the moment in which we could eliminate syphillis was rapidly slipping away (it has since slipped away). The world-wide elimination of malaria might be feasible, too, and not at great (say, Manhattan-project type) expense. I draw on medical examples not only because I know them, but because certain utopian projects--those that aim to rejuvenate or modernize hygiene, infrastructure, medicine, agriculture, and the like, have a pretty good track record. Other utopian projects that aim at social engineering, on the other hand, have done pretty poorly. (Strangely, the project of invading Iraq to produce widespread regime change, what with liberty on the march and all, in the Middle East region, strikes me as more of the latter.) "Technological utopian" thinking falls somewhere in between. I'm an academic, so I'll immediately weigh in on books I haven't read, and say that Sachs' book sounds like it falls in the more successful branches of utopian plans. In short, while it's true that the 20th c. is littered with the debris of utopian plans, it's true only insofar as it ignores all of the successful utopian plans of the past, like clean water supplies, people wearing underwear, and more.

Nell Lancaster

Strangely, the project of invading Iraq to produce widespread regime change, what with liberty on the march and all, in the Middle East region, strikes me as more of the latter.

Not to mention that the price tag for that project EACH MONTH would fund Sachs' proposal. But who's counting...?

Jonathan Goldberg

I agree that:

... James Scott's "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed," in my opinion the most important book written on the left in the last twenty years.

But he desperately needed an editor. Reading his prose is like swimming in glue. At least in this case the effort is rewarded.

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