Book: The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty
Author: Nina Munk
Reviewer: Kirk Bowman, Jon R. Wilcox Professor of Soccer and Global Politics – Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Tech – and Director of Rise Up & Care (Riseup.care).
The best book I read this year was Nina Munk’s The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Sachs is brilliant economist and force of nature who believed in going big to end poverty in Africa, raising $125 million and putting forward an integrated program that from 2005 to 2010 would transform five villages in Africa from dire poverty to sustainable development. Once proving his program, Sachs planned on raising billions to replicate the model throughout Africa, eventually helping a continent escape the poverty trap.
Munk, a Vanity Fair writer, followed the process first-hand from 2006 to 2011, spending months in two of the villages and having extensive access to Sachs and other leaders in the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) headquarters in New York City. Munk produces a compelling, perspicacious and ultimately suspenseful account of Sachs’ quest to change the world, in a short book that is both nuanced and highly readable.
The book begins with an introduction to the genius and achievement of Sachs, a singular combination of boyhood genius and celebrity activist. One cannot help but admire his energy, optimism and career arc. Munk joins all of humanity in hoping for a permanent solution for the poorest of communities and writes glowingly of the possibilities and of the commitment and skills of the two Ph.D. Africans selected to direct the two villages that are the foci of the book.
With millions of dollars coming into the villages each year along with teachers, medical professionals, and fertilizer, life improves rapidly and the reader can imagine a fairytale ending. Unfortunately, The Idealist turns into a Shakespearean tragedy with a well-intentioned protagonist undone by hubris, unexpected environmental disasters such as droughts and crop-devouring “locust birds”, and villages transformed from order to chaos by petty jealousies. After five years, the millennium villages quite simply never reach development, but rather remain charity cases, reliant on constant inflows of aid.
As the goals of the project become less and less attainable, Sachs becomes more and more desperate, eventually hiring an expert in social entrepreneurship to bring the miracle of the market to the villages. Sustainable agriculture was abandoned for the magic of banana flower, cardamom powder, dried pineapple, and other export products. Millennium village leaders were suddenly directed to produce elaborate business plans, something beyond their expertise. Export project after export project predictably fails, leaving behind disappointment and distrust in the villages.
Like the madness of the opera-loving protagonist in the film Fitzcarraldo, unable to admit defeat in building an opera house in the Amazon, Sachs continues to morph his strategy, schedule and expectations with the Millennium Village Project and predict success. Munk’s portrayal of Sachs is ultimately one of pity, and of a man unable to admit mistakes or the possibility that his economically informed program can be undone by the complexity of life on the ground.
I spent much of the past several years collaborating with a banker colleague to try and formulate a new model that would dramatically improve the abysmal success rate of global development projects (riseup.care). The Idealist reminds us every day that leaders and ideas must be local, that global development projects do not easily scale up and that new start-up projects almost always fail.
Read Dr. Bowman’s review from last year: Books 2014: Istanbul: Memories and the City