The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs And the Quest to End Poverty

  • Nina Munk
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This is a very interesting book about a controversial socioeconomic experiment aiming to the eradication of extreme poverty. Nina Munk analizes the initiatives of Jeffrey Sachs around Africa trying to reach the goals of the Millennium Villages Project. The Idealist work has elicited many notable books reviews, such as the ones we offer our readers below, written by Bill Gates and Matthea Brandenburg:

“Why Jeffrey Sachs Matters"

by Bill Gates

In The Idealist, Vanity Fair writer Nina Munk draws a nuanced portrait of Sachs and his Millennium Villages Project (MVP) ─ a $120 million demonstration project intended to show the world that it’s possible to lift African villages out of poverty through a massive infusion of targeted assistance. It would have been easy, and perhaps more marketable, for Munk to draw a caricature, overly accentuating Sachs’s negative qualities at the expense of his great gifts. But she doesn’t.

Munk spent six years researching for the book, getting to know Sachs well and living for extended periods in two of the 15 Millennium Villages. She clearly appreciates the importance and difficulty of what Sachs and his team are attempting to do.

Unlike most books about international development, Munk’s book is very readable and not long (260 pages). I’ve told everyone at our foundation that I think it is worth taking the time to read it. It’s a valuable—and, at times, heartbreaking—cautionary tale. While some of the Millennium Villages succeeded in helping families improve their health and incomes, the two villages that Munk spent the most time studying—Dertu, Kenya and Ruhiira, Uganda—did not come close to realizing Sachs’s vision.

[ Read Bill Gates' full review ]

Ambition Meets Complexity in Sub-Saharan Africa

by Matthea Brandenburg

Review of The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs And the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk (Doubleday 2013) 272 pages; $26.95.

Jeffrey Sachs, the world-renowned professor of economics and Special Advisor to the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the Millennium Development Goals, makes a bold claim: Extreme poverty can be eradicated and the means for doing so may not be as difficult as we imagine.

In The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and journalist Nina Munk details the six years she spent following Jeffrey Sachs around Africa, tracking the development of his Millennium Villages Project, a $120 million effort that began in 2005, aimed at reducing poverty through an integrated approach.

Through the project, 15 impoverished areas in Sub-Saharan Africa were selected to receive large infusions of foreign aid and develop sustainable agriculture, water and energy, education, health, and business infrastructure. The hope was that these models could then be replicated to completely eradicate extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and eventually the world.

The Millennium Villages Project served as the vehicle to test Sachs's utopian thesis: "that with enough focus, enough determination, and enough money we can 'end the suffering of those still trapped in poverty.'" Munk describes Sachs as having the gift of "reducing huge and complex issues to their essence." He is no doubt a brilliant man, having received tenure as a Harvard University economics professor at age 28 and advised the development strategy of numerous economies in turmoil. Sachs's new plan was appealing and people wanted to believe his approach would alter the status quo and decisively transform impoverished lives. After all, who wouldn't want to believe that poverty could be eradicated?

Sachs's extraordinary commitment to help the poorest of the poor is laudable. Yet his direct, simplistic approach leaves much room for questioning, especially in terms of its perception of the very people it is intended to help. Through his adamant belief in the power of financial aid to lift people out of poverty, his plan seemingly overlooks the capacity of the poor to be protagonists of their own development, and instead assigns the developed world the responsibility of "saving" those in poverty.

On a practical level, it is important to consider the track record of foreign aid and its relative ineffectiveness in jumpstarting prosperity. "Since the 1960s, more than $700 billion in foreign aid has been poured into Sub-Saharan Africa, yet the region is poorer than ever," states Munk. Sachs however believed that if foreign aid had failed it was because enough hadn't yet been committed to the developing world.

Munk's account of Sachs's work in the millennium villages highlights the stark reality that many of the challenges in Africa are too complex to be overcome by an increase in money and goods. In response to Sachs's promises of great advancement through the millennium villages, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni warned him, "You know, in these countries of Africa, we have many problems. This is not India or China. There are no markets. There is no network. No rails. No roads. We have no political cohesion." Attempting to create these features, without fully knowing and accepting the reality on the ground and the cultural underpinnings of a region, can prove to be a recipe for failure. The remains of wellintentioned, yet incomplete or dysfunctional development projects that litter Sub-Saharan Africa serve as the evidence.

But to Sachs's credit, the Millennium Villages Project staff was composed not only of foreigners, but also indigenous African experts who spoke the local language and knew the cultural implications of their respective areas. Appointed to lead the millennium villages at the ground level, these experts were eager to help their respective areas and gladly welcomed the increase in attention and infusion of resources provided through the project.

Ahmed Maalim Mohamed, the head of the millennium village in Dertu, Kenya, aimed to create a livestock market in the village so that the pastoralists of Dertu could have the opportunity to buy and sell their animals without traveling to other cities, the closest being 60 miles north. But despite Mohamed's efforts and prompting, the people of Dertu showed minimal interest in developing the area on their own. Dertu, an area prone to floods, droughts, and tribal violence, and lacking markets, roads, and electricity, served primarily as a pass-through point for pastoralists due to its water source.Its few inhabitants were content to remain dependent on the aid of international organizations or travel to other areas to meet their needs. Mohamed was frustrated but recognized the dilemma. "What can we do? We cannot enforce. We try to explain. We want to empower. But no one can come and change them if they do not want to change themselves." ...

[ Read the full interesting review ]