The End of ‘The End of Poverty’?

By: Diana Skelton (France)


In one of Abbé Pierre’s shantytowns. Photo from “Les enfants des bidonvilles.”

Humanity can end the devastation caused by AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, polluted water, failed crops and other crises linked to poverty. Jeffrey Sachs convinced the world of this a decade ago. In charge of the United Nations Millennium Development Project, he insisted to world leaders that their efforts could indeed end poverty. His 2005 New York Times bestseller, The End of Poverty—with a foreword by Bono—did the same for the general public, stressing how solvable these issues are. He has impressed me as a passionate and dynamic speaker every time I have heard him connect with college students or with heads of state.

A new book by Nina Munk, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, documents the failures of Sachs’ efforts to put his ideas into practice. Since 2006, Sachs’ Millennium Villages Project has tested his theories in ten African countries, with funding from George Soros. Journalist Howard French describes the results in one of these villages, in northeastern Kenya:

The original plan was for the people of Dertu to preserve their nomadic lifestyle. But the abundance of donated food  and services drew people from far and wide and induced them to settle. What had originally been little more than a watering hole for camels became a sprawling shantytown, its streets clogged with garbage. The new livestock market failed. The one water pump broke down. People began to fight among themselves for distributed goods. There was drought, followed by flooding. There were epidemics. There was theft, malingering, misreporting, and more.

What strikes me most about this is the similarity to the situation in France in 1954. The lingering ravages of World War II were compounded by one of the coldest winters on record, putting the homeless and the ill-housed at great risk. A well-known priest, Abbé Pierre, made a radio appeal for 5000 blankets, and hundreds of tents and stoves. The massive donations he received made it possible for him to found Emmaüs, a non-profit group that aids the homeless. However—like Jeffrey Sachs—Abbé Pierre had directed his appeal to donors without anticipating its effect of his words on people living in extreme poverty. All across the country, individuals and families whose lives were so hard that they had nothing to lose acted on his appeal by moving to the outskirts of Paris where Emmaüs was founded. Suddenly the region was flooded with far more homeless people than before. All around the capital, shantytowns sprang up where thousands of families were crowded into wartime Quonset huts made of sheet metal with no insulation. A single outdoor water pump often had to serve as many as 60 families. The streets were a sea of mud.

Sachs once said, “We need to defend the interests of those whom we’ve never met and never will.” But never meeting the people being “defended” by others is the source of the problem. In 1950s France, Joseph Wresinski lived in one of the new shantytowns, and it was together with the other residents that he founded All Together in Dignity/ATD Fourth World. Over the years, the intelligence of these and other people living in extreme poverty has continually shaped ATD Fourth World’s approach to fighting poverty.

But what will happen now to the enthusiasm for ending poverty fired by Sachs? In the 1960s, the US “War on Poverty” inspired thousands of talented and energetic young people to get involved in low-income inner cities and remote rural communities—but their enthusiasm flagged when it turned out that there was no quick fix, and when the government turned instead to the war in Vietnam. Today, will people and governments disappointed by Sachs’ Millennium Villages resign themselves to thinking that “the poor will always be with us”? How can this become an opportunity for all of us to learn something about how valuable it is for people living in poverty to be part of every stage of planning and evaluating our efforts to put an end to poverty?

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