Stop me before I Sachs again

Jeffrey Sachs strikes again.

I’m so sorry readers, I know this is getting really, really OLD. But Sachs unveils such a bizarre geographic theory of Africa’s poverty, with such misguided implications for aid policy, that I am forced to respond. I can’t help myself, the stakes are too high. Suggestions for corrective therapy would still be welcome.

At least now we have finally gotten away from personal attacks, so let me say that Sachs is an inspirational and hard-working intellectual. His ideas on Africa are only sometimes totally wrong, the other times they are only fatally wrong.

Summary in brief of Sachs’ geography theory: a region will be poor IF they are tropical, IF rainfed, IF landlocked, and IF they have the wrong mosquitoes – which, yes, fits many African countries. With enough IFs, you can fit ANY theory to any set of facts. If I am a short, balding, grey-bearded, bespectacled, white male economic development professor residing in Greenwich Village, I will be writing this post right now – it fits the facts.

Sachs also has a rather convoluted “aid works” narrative in this column. He says aid was high enough and went to the right things enough to achieve great things in Africa on health and education. So why didn’t it create economic growth? Because aid wasn’t high enough and didn’t go to the right things enough.

The other problem with Sach’s geography story is that it has already been refuted by other economists. The consensus among several academic papers is that destructive governments rather than destructive geography explains the poverty of nations. Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson (2006), Easterly and Levine (2003), and Rodrik, Subramanian, and Trebbi (2004) all tested the geography story against the institutions story and came down on the side of institutions.

So Robert Mugabe was a lot worse for Zimbabwe than the Anopheles mosquito. Corruption is more fatal for oil-rich Nigeria and Angola than latitude. Bad health has more to do with bad health systems than bad parasites. Other factors that Sachs mentions such as illiteracy and poor infrastructure are also symptoms of bad government services.

Of course, it is a lot easier to justify giving a lot of aid to African governments if they are helpless victims of geography rather than (mostly) just being – bad governments. Is this why Sachs insists on a bizarre geographic theory of Africa’s poverty and is oblivious to the bad governments that many courageous African dissenters have protested at great sacrifice? I don’t know, but I do know aid does a lot more good when it goes to poor individuals, and not to poor governments.


Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson and James Robinson, “Institutions as the Fundamental Cause of Long-Run Growth”, in Aghion and Durlauf, Handbook of Economic Growth, 2005

Easterly, W. and R. Levine, “Tropics, germs, and crops: the role of endowments in economic development”, Journal of Monetary Economics, 50(1), January 2003.

Rodrik, D., A. Subramanian, and F. Trebbi, “Institutions Rule: The Primacy of Institutions over Geography and Integration in Economic Development”, Journal of Economic Growth, vol. 9, no.2, June 2004

Sachs, Jeffrey, John Luke Gallup and Andrew Mellinger, "Geography and Economic Development,", International Regional Science Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 179-232, August 1999.