Jeff Sachs’ intellectual empire gets new funding

There’s a new way to study development: a masters degree in the practice of development. The MacArthur Foundation announced ten universities to receive funding for the new degree program yesterday, bringing the funding from MacArthur for this project to $16 million. The first students matriculated at Columbia University in 2009, and by 2013 the foundation expects the programs to be producing 400 graduates a year from around the world.

The two-year degree is multidisciplinary—the health sciences, the natural sciences and engineering, the social sciences, and management—with a focus on application and fieldwork.

Since today’s problems—like climate change, poverty and sustainable development—are interconnected, students need to be prepared to think across disciplines, so the argument goes. If ending global hunger (Millennium Development Goal number one) requires technical knowledge of health and nutrition, agronomy, agricultural supply systems, as well as managing organizational change, then this degree proposes to equip graduates with basic knowledge on all those topics.

The idea for the new global program comes from the Earth Institute’s Jeffrey Sachs, an architect of the Millennium Development Goals, and John McArthur, the head of the NGO that supports the Millennium Village Project, who articulated their vision in a 2008 report on education for development professionals.

Here’s what this program assumes the world needs more of:

a new generation of development practitioners who can understand the “languages” and practices of many specialties, and who can work fluidly and flexibly across intellectual and professional disciplines and geographic regions.

This sounds pretty good. In fact, I’m a generalist myself, which is how I ended up in this job, where I write about a global health issue one day and an economics paper the next.

But what if what the world really needs more of something else? What if it needs more specialists, more people with deep knowledge about the regions they study and work in? What if it needs people who are well-versed enough in their own disciplines to be critical of half-baked development ideas cooked up by aid planners who know just enough about every topic to believe they have the answers?  What if the world needs more specialists to evaluate the quality of the work in each specialty?

Curriculum and course materials proposed by the central “Secretariat” for development practice are housed in Columbia’s Earth Institute. Will the new programs produce students with a standardized, narrowly-prescribed view of how to approach development problems? Or will the melding of disciplines encourage critical thinking and help straddle the theory-policy divide, making global cooperation run more smoothly and international aid more effective?

I hope it’s the latter. But here’s one discouraging clue: The draft 2009 syllabus for the development practice degree’s required “foundation course,” offered at Columbia and several other universities around the world through web conferencing, reads like a synopsis of the degree itself. And all the readings for the course’s introductory week, the week devoted to foreign aid and policy, and the week on the Millennium Villages Project are authored by either Jeff Sachs, John McArthur, the Millennium Villages Project scientists, or the UN.

Hat tip to Michael Clemens.