War of words between Bill Gates and Jeff Sachs

By Ma. Eliza Villarino 26 May 2014

Not seeing eye to eye on the Millennium Villages? Jeffrey Sachs, the director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. Photo composite by: APEC 2013 / CC BY and World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

Jeffrey Sachs is on the defensive again about the Millennium Villages Project, an initiative he started more than a decade ago to demonstrate that extreme poverty can be eliminated through a mixture of hyper-local engagement and cutting-edge advice.

The trigger: Comments published last week by Bill Gates on Nina Munk’s book “The Idealist,” which chronicles MVP’s rise and perceived challenges.

The book, published earlier this year, should be a recommended reading for employees at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates suggested in his review.

“It’s a valuable — and, at times, heartbreaking — cautionary tale,” Gates wrote. “While some of the Millennium Villages have succeeded in helping families improve their health and incomes, Munk concludes that the two villages she spent the most time studying­ — Dertu, Kenya and Ruhiira, Uganda — have so far not lived up to Sachs’s vision.”

Munk’s book has never sat well with Sachs. In an interview with Devex President and Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar earlier this year, the director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute denounced Munk’s “superficial view of the project,” noting that she only visited two sites a few times, as well as her “very limited and way out-of-date reporting.”

And he made a similar assertion in a comment posted below Gates’ review, which on Friday was adapted into a full-fledged commentary titled “Why Bill Gates gets it wrong.”

“In his review of Nina Munk’s error-filled and out-of-date book, Bill Gates oddly abandons the rigorous approach to measurement and evaluation that defines his foundation’s invaluable work,” Sachs noted. “He simply accepts Munk’s assertion that the Millennium Villages Project — an ongoing development project across more than 20 African countries — has failed. In fact, it is flourishing.”

As Devex has reported, Sachs plans to publish an extensive review of MVP in mid-2015. In last week’s op-ed, the renowned economist is seeking the Gates Foundation’s support for that study. Already, Sachs writes, there is evidence of progress, and host country governments are adopting MVP’s ideas. Sachs then issues a challenge to Gates.

“He can pick any district in rural Africa, and our team will work with the local communities using the Millennium Village health approach to reduce the under-five mortality rate to below 30/1,000 — a rate characteristic of many middle-income countries — at an annual health-sector cost of just $60 per person. And we will do it in five years or less,” Sachs writes. “That success, I believe, would help Bill and others to recognize the remarkable value of investing in low-cost rural health systems that follow the design principles of the Millennium Village Project.”

Sachs extended his comment on Twitter:

 via twitter.com/JeffDSachs

But the back-and-forth didn’t end there. Bill Easterly, who’s had a long, continuing debate with Sachs about how to eradicate poverty and boost development, chimed in without much delay:

via twitter.com/bill_easterly

Munk, the book author, tweeted:

via twitter.com/ninamunk
via twitter.com/ninamunk

What do you think about the Millennium Villages Project and Nina Munk’s book “The Idealist”? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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Ma. Eliza VillarinoDevexElizaJV

Currently based in New York City, Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.


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