Jeffrey Sachs and
the Quest to End
"American Hubris, African Nemesis," by Angus Deaton
Nina Munk's The Idealist is a deep and important book about foreign aid and development: grandiose plans, especially those hatched abroad, will be brought down by the complexity and unknowability of local conditions and human behaviour. Beyond the enormous punch that the book delivers, the quality of the writing is that of a fine novel, not of the usual tract in social science. We get to know and care about the characters, including Munk herself; we share their dedication, their optimism, and their dreams of improving lives. We also care when their illusions are destroyed, and their dedication is betrayed. Much of the message is conveyed by the arc of the story, and by the change in Munk's own voice as she moves from her initial optimism and her commitment to reporting on something that really matters—the fight against global poverty—into final disillusion. It is a trip that many of us have made over the years, but few with so much knowledge from the field and none whose experiences are so eloquently and movingly reported.
"The Aid Debate Is Over," by William Easterly
The Idealist, Nina Munk's brilliant book on [Jeffrey] Sachs' anti-poverty efforts, chronicles how his dream fell far short of reality. Munk, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, follows Sachs around as he supervises the experiment. She also goes out on her own to the Millennium Villages, especially Dertu, in the ethnic Somali region of Kenya's arid north, and the more centrally located settlement of Ruhiira, Uganda. What she finds in these villages reveals much about the future of the aid and development debate.
Sachs' technical fixes frequently turned out to be anything but simple. The saga of Dertu's wells is illustrative. Ahmed Mohamed, the local man in charge of the effort, discovers that he needs to order a crucial part for a generator that powers the wells. The piece takes four months to arrive, and then nobody knows how to install it. Eventually a distant mechanic arrives at great expense. A couple of years later, Munk returns to find Mohamed struggling with the same issues: The wells have broken down again, the parts are lacking, and nobody knows how to fix the problem….
Such examples multiply in Munk's book, showing that purely technological answers to poverty fall well short of Sachs' promises. It turns out that technology does not implement itself; it requires the assistance of real people subject to widely varying incentives and constraints in complex social and political systems.
"Presenting the Albies," by Daniel W. Drezner
Writing accessibly about development economics is a high-wire act, but Munk accomplishes it brilliantly. She shadows Sachs as he cajoles world leaders to fund his Millennium projects, and also visits those places to tell the whole story. The final chapter, in which Munk interviews a chastened Sachs (usually an oxymoron), is particularly devastating.
"Books for the Devoted Development Reader," by Liz Ford
"That's what I do. I write a letter. Then another letter. Then an op-ed. And then I throw a tantrum," economist Jeffrey Sachs tells author Nina Munk in a book gently exposing the crude realities of development projects created in the boardrooms of the west and blind to the peculiarities of the people and places they are designed to support. From 2006, Munk shadowed Sachs across Africa and into state offices and UN meetings as he sought backing—financial and ideological—for his Millennium Villages Project (MVP). The idea was simple in Sachs's mind. Hand out fertiliser and mosquito bednets, build schools and health centres, and you could end poverty in five years—all for $120 a head, funded by an increase in foreign aid. Sachs selected "model" villages in 10 African countries for his experiment. In Sachs, Munk shows us an intelligent man who refuses to countenance the possibility that his ideas could be flawed as the MVP runs out of money, switches focus and is extended. We see him shouting and belittling anyone who disagrees or tries to block him. But this book is in no way a hatchet job. By juxtaposing stories from the MVP head office in New York with those from Africans managing the project and living in the model villages, Munk, who spent six years tracking progress, simply lays bare the complexities of development. This is an engaging, eye-opening read.
"Best Books of 2013," by Simon Kennedy
Howard G. Buffett, chairman of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, selects “The Idealist”: Illuminated the flaws of trying to impose Western thinking on Africa. Jeff Sachs’ Millennium Villages tried to create a recipe for lifting regions out of poverty through massive aid and development plans designed from a distance by people who lacked a deep understanding of farming. This book is stark proof that approach just does not work. Farming is context-specific, and any plan that is not created from the ground up in partnership with local people who are invested not only in increasing agricultural productivity, but the development of sustainable markets, is doomed. The world needs to pay attention to these lessons and stop wasting resources.
"Arrested Development," by Armin Rosen
Written over six years, with exhaustive on-the-ground reporting from two African communities that are part of MVP village clusters, [Nina] Munk’s book is a readable and fast-paced chronicle of the real-world consequences of elite intellectual arrogance…..
Munk has done more than contribute to a still-academic debate over the future of development economics. The Idealist is about the conflict between the arrogance of the intellect and the unsentimental realities of human nature. The book’s central drama does not takes place in the sub-Saharan African villages where Munk conducted much of her research, but in the mind of a man who believes that he can triumph over a problem that both precedent and con- ventional wisdom have declared insoluble. The policy question behind The Idealist is whether it was right for the United Nations, legions of governments, and private donors to enable Sachs. But Munk’s authoritative telling of Sach’s story is most valuable as an exhortation to intellectual humility, and a compulsively readable portrait of a man without any.
The Weekly Standard
"The Cost of Big Aid," by Bartle B. Bull
Munk is a veteran of the higher ranks of American monthly magazine journalism: She brings to this book the deep, well-resourced reporting that can be a hallmark of that world. As America’s foremost chronicler of the follies of the dotcom boom, she understands hubris well. Munk originally went to Africa to cover the Millennium Villages Project—$120 million for 10 African villages over 5 years, meant to demonstrate how Sachs could defeat extreme poverty cheaply and quickly—forVanity Fair in 2006. She kept going back through 2011, covering the span of Sachs’s five-year economic plan….
Nina Munk writes well about Africa. But we sense that, for her, Africa is really a portal, the literary wardrobe or looking-glass through which she bravely ventures into a stranger and more frightening place. This is Sachsland, a nightmarish realm where the fevered natives, chanting acronyms, conquer Africa in pressed khaki trousers for their zombie empire. The doughty Ms. Munk ventures courageously into the darkest reaches of this phantasmagorical hell: the canteen at U.N. headquarters, forward cabins on intercontinental flights, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These people are malarial. They are stupid and lazy and cannot help themselves. They gorge dementedly on the funds and misery of others. Leprous with arrogance and defensiveness, they have lost the facility of normal language. Outwardly well-meaning and clean, they are infected with a virulent creed of sociopathic condescension that causes them to inflict terrible harm on millions of innocent people far, far away. They are snared in the comfortable trap of the poverty of others.
Munk writes with notable modesty for someone able to turn this dreary material into not only an important book, but a truly enjoyable read. She does not boast, but the reader cannot avoid the impression that her intrepid years in Sachsland have demanded all the inner steel of the most hardened explorer or war correspondent.
"The Best Books of 2013: The Idealist, by Nina Munk"
Munk tracks a messianic economist’s quixotic attempts to show that he can end African poverty. In one village his team gets farmers to grow maize instead of traditional matoke; there are no buyers for the bumper crop, and rats end up eating much of it. Munk describes a growing gulf between good intentions and hard reality with nuance and sensitivity.
"Books of the Year," by Michela Wrong
The Idealist tracks the messianic economist Jeffrey Sachs’s doomed attempt to solve African poverty by establishing a network of model villages where his pet theories could be tested before being escalated. The author, Nina Munk, who spent six years interviewing Sachs and visiting the Millenium Villages, is a delicate, careful writer. She not only reminds us that there are good, solid reasons why certain areas of the world remain desperately poor, she raises troubling questions about the credibility of an economist embraced by rock singers and film stars.
The Christian Science Monitor
"Doing Good in Africa," by Laura Seay
It's hard to come up with anything to say about Nina Munk's magnificent new book that hasn't already been said…. It is an absolute must-read for anyone who is interested in doing good for those in need. Far from writing a cheerleader's account about someone who "just wants to help," Munk raises questions about whether poverty actually has technical solutions, or whether cultural norms and behaviors can derail even the most well-funded and planned activities.
From Poverty to Power
"A Brilliant, Gripping, Disturbing Portrait of Jeffrey Sachs," by Duncan Green
For The Idealist, Nina Munk, a Vanity Fair journo, stalked Jeffrey Sachs for six years, focusing on his controversial Millennium Villages Project (MVP). She interviewed the man, sat in on his meetings with bigwigs, and hung around the Millennium Villages to find out what happened when the Prof’s entourage moved on.
The result is more subtle than a simple hatchet job. She portrays Sachs as a man of almost pathological drive and egotism, which both leads to big successes (massive victories on distribution of free anti-malarial bednets for example) and to a refusal to listen or learn from criticism. He comes across as a kind of uber-campaigner, devoid of doubt, absolutely refusing to take no for an answer, dismissive (often in highly personal terms) of anyone who disagrees with him.
There are some memorable vignettes, captured by Munk’s unblinking observation. Sachs lecturing Uganda’s bored President Museveni about boosting farm yields with free fertilizer, when all the President wants is his cup of tea, concluding (as he leaves) ‘This is not India or China, Professor. There are no markets. There is no network. No rails. No roads. We have no political cohesion.’
"Jeffrey Sachs's Failed Experiment in Africa," by Erika Fry
A fine writer with a gift for deploying spare, vivid detail, Munk overcomes the burden of what could be duller-than-dirt subject matter—the politics of foreign aid; the ins and outs of Uganda's matoke market; NGO infighting over anti-malaria efforts—into a lively and at times, quite funny book.
Her narrative weaves together scenes from the field—she focuses on two villages— usually chronicling the many travails of Millennium Village staff, and scenes trailing the jet-set Sachs, who rides around Africa in armored, air-conditioned SUVs. The juxtaposition is not subtle but neither is Sachs, who, at one point in the book, while disembarking a flight in Dar es Salaam, shouts down a fellow passenger (a parasitologist)—"These deaths are on your hands!"— for opposing his campaign to distribute mosquito nets…. Though well-intentioned, Sachs comes across as prickly, dismissive, and supremely arrogant. Most damningly, he appears disconnected from the on-the-ground realities of MVP, the efforts of his staff, and particularly the lives he's trying to improve.
"The Arrogance of Good Intentions," by William Easterly
In one of the most readable and evocative accounts of foreign aid ever written, The Idealist shows that virtually nothing about such aid is ever easy. In 2006, when Columbia University economics professor Jeffrey Sachs, author of the influential best seller The End of Poverty, launched the Millennium Villages Project, journalist Nina Munk decided to devote her time to covering that project close-up. Sachs selected a dozen of what he called Millennium Villages in 10 African countries. The idea was to eliminate poverty in those villages with packages of technical fixes ranging from fertilizer to mosquito nets to health centers to diesel generators to new wells—what Munk calls "extreme village makeover." ....
Munk chose two villages for intensive coverage: Dertu in the arid north of Kenya, and the better-watered and more fertile village of Ruhiira, Uganda. With novelistic skill, she also tells the villagers' story from the point of view of the local man in charge of Sachs' project in each village; the Kenyan Ahmed Mohamed and the Ugandan David Siriri both come alive on the page….
As the author makes clear, no one has worked harder to help the world's poor than Jeffrey Sachs, or made more of the world's affluent care about their plight. Moreover, aid has had some focused successes, such as vaccination programs. But aid cannot achieve the end of poverty…. Sachs offered a seductive message to Westerners: that they could be the saviors who could end poverty in Africa with a modest amount of effort. After reading Munk's superb book, nobody will ever again think ending poverty is really that easy.
The Globe & Mail
"Nina Munk's Divided Account on the Subject of Extreme Poverty," by Douglas Bell
[Nina] Munk is a sly, relentless reporter with a gift for wedding her observations to a fluent, even graceful, writing style—i.e. she is a master of hoisting her prey on their own petards. My favourite moment in this regard arrived towards the end of the third to last chapter. Having pointed out the somewhat paradoxical fact of Sachs espousing the end of poverty for those living on pennies a day while himself living in an $8-million town house in Manhattan, Munk quotes him at length defending an approach that seems, by that stage in her reporting, at best incoherent, if not downright destructive.... Then, in a final flourish, Munk essentially cuts him off in mid-stream using an ellipsis to conclude not only the quote but the chapter. That last sentence hangs in the air, as it were, over a blank chasm of empty space comprising the remaining four-fifths of a page. The effect is practically cinematic. And seldom has a victim of the journo’s notepad had less opportunity to claim the quotes were taken out of context. Munk has essentially rendered the quote in such a way as to make it indistinguishable from the context.
Vanity Fair's VF Daily
"Can Bono's Africa Guru Jeffrey Sachs Truly End Poverty?," by Bruce Handy
Nina Munk ’s new book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, is both a tragicomedy and a genuine tragedy, a fascinating portrait of an innovative thinker as well as a fair-minded examination of his methods. It’s also a testament to the enduring value of old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting—it should be read not just in policy circles but also at J-schools.
The Globe & Mail
"How Jeffrey Sachs Failed to Save Africa,"
by Margaret Wente
The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty is a devastating takedown of Mr. Sachs’s technocratic fantasies. It is essential reading for anyone who thinks that brilliant people with the right interventions can save the world….
"Jeffrey Sachs' Incredible Failure to Eradicate Failure in Africa," by Howard W. French
[Nina] Munk, a reporter who had little prior experience in Africa, economics, or the amorphous field of “development,” spent six years following [Sachs] on his trips to the continent and visiting on her own to assess his achievements there. The reader can feel her learning along the way, not just about her subject—the “Great Professor,” as one of his African employees calls him—but also about his ambitions and their distance from reality….
Gradually, as Munk becomes more attuned to Sachs’s thinking, and more confident in her judgments, it becomes clear that she has no interest in burnishing the Great Professor’s ample legend. On the contrary: Her book is a devastating portrait of hubris and its consequences.
"Jeffrey Sachs Meets Hayek," by Terrance Corcoran
Professor Sachs is the subject of a devastating new book, The Idealist, by Nina Munk. Ms. Munk spent several years both trailing the “Great Professor” and acquainting herself intimately with two of his “Millennium Villages” projects….
The catalogue of bright ideas that go awry would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. One day poultry farming is the magic bullet, the next its camel safaris or market gardening. If there is a bumper crop, it rots, or provides a rat breeding ground, because nobody thought of how to get it to market. Some genius has an epiphany about bringing in donkeys to fetch water. The donkeys drop dead of exhaustion. Equipment is stolen. Nobody knows how to repair essential generators and pumps. Meanwhile they have to compile copious surveys and statistics to send back to Mr. Sachs’ Earth Institute in Manhattan….
Professor Sachs’s approach has come under withering attack from a range of development specialists, such as William Easterly, Dambisa Moyo, and Esther Duflo. His response is to dismiss them, or claim they don’t really care about the poor. Similarly, Professor Sachs’ reaction to Ms. Munk’s well-crafted book is that she just doesn’t know what she’s writing about. You be the judge.
The Wall Street Journal
"Dr. Sachs Goes to Africa," by James Traub
Nina Munk's "The Idealist" is less a straightforward biography than a sharply rendered and deeply disillusioned account of [Jeffrey Sachs's] personal quest to end poverty…. With impressive persistence, unflagging empathy and journalistic derring-do, Ms. Munk returns over a five-year period to Dertu, Kenya, and one other village to document the [Millennium Village] Project's progress. She seems to care about the ground truth a good deal more than than does her subject, who is immune to doubt and enraged by criticism. Ms Munk shows him browbeating skeptical experts, and when she cites critiques of his work by fellow economists, Mr. Sachs shoots back: 'I don't think they're on target, I don't think they're good science, and I don't think they're apropos.'
A planned livestock market collapsed a few months after it opened, in part because Somali herders don't like parting with their camels, which they regard as emblems of status and sources of security, just as they don't like wasting their bed nets on children. They aren't rational actors by the standards of Western economists. Dertu was supposed to become self-sufficient after five years in the Millennium Village incubator, but it remained helpless....
Mr. Sachs deserves a great deal of credit for insisting, in the face of 'donor fatigue' and self-serving cynicism, that outsiders can make a dent in global poverty and therefore must try to do so. But his diagnostic metaphor envisions aid as a transaction between a wise (Western) doctor and suffering victims. There is, in his world view, no state and no politics, no culture or history. The actual wishes and preferences of the recipients have shrunk into irrelevance. That's not development, in the words of one of the many critics Ms. Munk cites---it's charity."
The New York Times
"Fighting Poverty and Critics," by Joe Nocera
It is not quite right to say that Nina Munk has sidestepped the dispute between Sachs and his critics. Mainly, though, she has looked at the Millennium Villages Project through a different lens. She has spent the last half-dozen years traveling back and forth to Africa, to see for herself how the Sachs experiment was unfolding. She focused in particular on two villages: Dertu, Kenya, and Ruhiira, Uganda.
“Jeff is a charismatic man, and I wanted to believe in him,” Munk told me recently. She is quick to give him credit where it is due: for instance, his passionate advocacy for free distribution of insecticide-coated bed nets, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, is an important reason that the scourge of malaria is being reduced. But her reporting also caused her to become disillusioned, and humbled, by the difficulties that any Western aid effort is likely to encounter. With almost every intervention, she documents the chasm that exists between the villagers and those running the project.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"The Idealist Looks at Bold Venture to Eradicate Poverty," by Marc Bona
Nina Munk’s chronicle of the MVP dream and its decay...is a fascinating and essential exploration of what goes wrong when unchecked audacity and clinical precision encounter the frailties, ambiguities, and unpredictabilities of human beings, societies and histories.
Munk places much of the blame for MVP failures squarely on Sach’s shoulders. Brash and arrogant, he often failed to listen to front-line workers in the field, and to affected communities—the most common, enduring shortcoming of development efforts. “It’s never easy to disagree with Jeffrey Sachs,” Munk notes. “You might trigger an argument. You might ruffle his feathers. In all likelihood, he’ll make you feel small.” Ultimately it is to Sachs’ lasting credit that he proposed such a bold vision. It may be to his lasting failure that he tried to implement that vision by excluding everyone, relying only on his own perspective and intellect.
Vanity Fair contributing editor Munk spent six years chronicling the Millennium Villages Project, the pet project that lauded economist Sachs launched in 2006. The project’s goal was an audacious attempt to prove Sachs’s well-intentioned, but ultimately naïve theories about ending extreme poverty in Africa by focusing on a handful of carefully selected villages with the expectation that their halo effect would spread throughout the country.
Munk artfully observes how Sachs’s infectious enthusiasm and optimism bring attention (and funding, including $120 million from George Soros) to the fledgling organization at home and abroad. Sachs ably illustrates how tactics like lacing mosquito nets with insecticides to fight malaria can make significant headway in achieving a larger goal of helping communities improve their circumstances and chances for development.
It’s a noble effort, but Sachs and his compatriots soon find that they wildly underestimated the difficulty of distributing those crucial nets, the impact of drought, as well as the learned helplessness of the recipients. All of these factors contribute to a less-than-ideal outcome.
Students of economic policy and altruistic do-gooders alike will find Munk’s work to be a measured, immersive study of a remarkable but all-too-human man who let his vision get the best of him.
A journalist's probing account of renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs' Utopian experiment in ending global poverty. Trenchant and thought-provoking.
In 2005, Sachs, a 'guru' to celebrity activists like Bono and Angelina Jolie, published a best-selling book, The End of Poverty, which claimed that poverty could be eliminated by 2025. His proposal was simple. Developed nations and private donors would pool together massive amounts of foreign aid to invest in forms of self-help that included fertilizer and high-yield grain to improve agricultural output and mosquito nets to prevent malaria… Starting in 2006, Vanity Fair contributor Munk followed Sachs on his quixotic quest. She traveled with him on several occasions to Africa, where she watched as he and his team of development experts worked on the Millennium Villages Project, a five-year experiment designed to improve the economic and social well-being of 12 sub-Saharan villages. However, Sachs underestimated the difficulties he would encounter. Drought, political violence, aging infrastructure, traditional cultural values and resistance to change all undermined the goals of the project….
Munk is most effective in her depiction of the dangers inherent in imposing theories on the complex and ever-changing lives of real human beings. Radical new ideas are necessary to facilitate change, but no matter how brilliant, they will always and invariably have their limits.
“Jeffrey Sachs is a global phenomenon: no one thinks as big, makes a more passionate case for foreign aid, and works as hard to make the dream of ending global poverty a reality. This terrific book gives you a ringside seat on Sachs’s tireless global quest to get donors, governments, international agencies, private firms, and poor farmers to buy into his vision of economic development. Nina Munk’s portrayal goes beyond the man and his dream; it is a clearheaded depiction of the challenges the world’s poorest face as they struggle to improve their lives.”
Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard University and author of The Globalization Paradox
“A riveting narrative that must be read to understand why the over $700 billion pumped into Africa by the West since 1960 has achieved so little. This powerful book will shake up the foreign aid development community.”
George Ayittey, president of the Free Africa Foundation and author of Africa Unchained
“Nina Munk’s book is an excellent—and moving—tribute to the vision and commitment of Jeffery Sachs, as well as an enlightening account of how much can be achieved by reasoned determination.”
Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Development as Freedom
“A powerful exposé of hubris run amok, drawing on touching accounts of real-life heroes fighting poverty on the front line.”
Robert Calderisi, author of The Trouble with Africa
“The Idealist confirms that in the quest to end extreme poverty in Africa, the truly wise and resonant voices are those of the Africans themselves.”
Roger Thurow, author of The Last Hunger Season
“Nina Munk’s incisive, moving and elegantly written report takes us to Africa to see firsthand that the poor don’t need one more central planner with the prescription for prosperity. What the poor need is what really made the rich rich—the legal devices to join their continent’s vast, dispersed natural and human resources into valuable combinations through their own collective action.”
Hernando de Soto, president of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy, and author of The Mystery of Capital
“Nina Munk has written a fascinating book about a fascinating man—and even more important, about a set of ideas that are intriguing and important.”
Fareed Zakaria, editor-at-large of Time magazine