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The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty

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A powerful portrayal of Jeffrey Sachs's ambitious quest to end global poverty
 "The poor you will always have with you," to cite the Gospel of Matthew 26:11. Jeffrey Sachs—celebrated economist, special advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations, and author of the influential bestseller The End of Poverty—disagrees.  In his view, poverty is a problem that can be solved. With single-minded determination he has attempted to put into practice his theories about ending extreme poverty, to prove that the world's most destitute people can be lifted onto "the ladder of development."
            In 2006, Sachs launched the Millennium Villages Project, a daring five-year experiment designed to test his theories in Africa. The first Millennium village was in Sauri, a remote cluster of farming communities in western Kenya. The initial results were encouraging. With his first taste of success, and backed by one hundred twenty million dollars from George Soros and other likeminded donors, Sachs rolled out a dozen model villages in ten sub-Saharan countries. Once his approach was validated it would be scaled up across the entire continent. At least that was the idea.
        For the past six years, Nina Munk has reported deeply on the Millennium Villages Project, accompanying Sachs on his official trips to Africa and listening in on conversations with heads-of-state, humanitarian organizations, rival economists, and development experts. She has immersed herself in the lives of people in two Millennium villages: Ruhiira, in southwest Uganda, and Dertu, in the arid borderland between Kenya and Somalia. Accepting the hospitality of camel herders and small-hold farmers, and witnessing their struggle to survive, Munk came to understand the real-life issues that challenge Sachs's formula for ending global poverty. 
         THE IDEALIST is the profound and moving story of what happens when the abstract theories of a brilliant, driven man meet the reality of human life.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2013

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About the author

Nina Munk

8 books27 followers
Nina Munk is a journalist and author whose articles have appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Fortune, The New York Times, and other publications. She is the author or co-author of four books, include The Idealist Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty and Fools Rush In: Steve Case Jerry Levin and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner . She is also the editor of How it Happened: Documenting the Tragedy of Hungarian Jewry . Nina is working on a new book to be published by Alfred A. Knopf, a work of narrative nonfiction about her family during the Holocaust in Hungary.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 172 reviews
Profile Image for briz.
Author 7 books67 followers
October 24, 2013
Oh, man. This was really good. Full disclaimer: I used to work for Esther Duflo, who is mentioned a couple times in the book. And I've lately been thinking unconditional cash transfers are a thing. Like, a really cool thing. Is it a MAGICAL BULLET-like object? I have been trained not to think so. But one gets excited.

Anyway. This book shares many similarities with another excellent, modern bio about a big guy in development: Mountains Beyond Mountains. First, both are reeeeally well-written, telling a narratively coherent tale full of emotional depths. This is not something to smirk at, given that development economics and public health can be pretty sterile, scientific, sloggy stuff when you get down into the details of things. Second, the subjects are very similar: Jeff Sachs and Paul Farmer are both portrayed as hyper-intelligent, tempestuous firebrands, driven by incredible drive and energy to fulfill a near-saintly moral mission. They are also well-full of moral clarity, and are thus unambiguously convinced of their correctness - nay, their duty - to do things exactly the way they have conceived of doing them.

The big difference is that, while Mountains Beyond Mountains is a near-hagiography that has inspired who-knows-how-many public health professionals, I don't think The Idealist will be inspiring much beyond some heavy sighs; of discouragement, of lament. Sachs has always been a controversial, occasionally smirk-inducing figure in the profession - but then, anyone who confidently asserts he's found the solution to it all would be met with such reactions. The MTV/Angelina Jolie video diary thing, I remember, got some LOLs when it came out. But his reputation really started to take hits when the inevitable questions came up: just how well are those Millennium Villages doing? I won't get into the details, though I did enjoy this blog about it.

The author, Nina Munk, does a great job of describing, in great detail, the human aspect of the Millennium Villages - as embodied in two of Sachs's front-line soldiers; that is, the managers of two such villages in Uganda and Kenya. Their backgrounds, their optimism, their highs and lows really make the book what it is. It's fascinating and heartbreaking. And it really encapsulates the, at times, disheartening job of development: all the myriad ways things go wrong, the layers and layers of problems. Because a lot of "high-level" development, the stuff done by high-powered academics and donors, takes place in the cushy hotels and endless airport lounges of the world. And what's sad (for a young professional, like me) is that this isn't new: Ross Coggins was already sardonically lamenting it almost 40 years ago. It really makes you wonder about the "development" industry, and incentive structures, and politics, and so on.

Munk alludes to some of these "development set"-y notions, by noting Sachs's hyper-brief, hyper-energetic, hyper-packaged visits to his Villages, and the disconnect between the theories and the reality.

But I digress too much. Is this a useful introduction to someone who knows nothing about development? Yes, I think so. I think it introduces many of the major "characters" (Sachs and beyond), and many of the common pitfalls of doing this work. It doesn't answer why some countries are rich and some poor, but it does show what it means to be rich and poor, and why it's so difficult to change things. And Sachs's "fall" is not so unique - how many idealistic, intelligent people have seen their elegant theories crash and burn against reality? - but what makes it special is, perhaps, that we watched it live and it encompassed so many millions of dollars.

Very, very recommended.
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 30 books414 followers
April 6, 2017

It’s difficult even to dip your toes into the field of poverty without tripping over the Millennium Villages Project. So extensive has been the coverage of this ambitious – some would say hubristic – endeavor that scholars may spend years sifting through the documented record. But anyone curious about the Millennium Villages need only read The Idealist, financial journalist Nina Munk’s eminently readable and extensively researched account of the Project and the extraordinarily gifted man who conceived and forced it on the world’s consciousness. Munk’s first-hand account should stand for years as the authoritative judgment on this ill-considered venture.

The Millennium Villages Project grew from a newfound concern with poverty in the mind of Jeffrey Sachs. Then a celebrated professor of economics at Columbia University and head of its Earth Institute, Sachs fastened on the idea of investing large sums of money in a dozen selected villages around sub-Saharan Africa to perform a sort of “shock therapy” that would lift the lucky residents out of poverty in five years and demonstrate to the world how anti-poverty work should be done. He set a goal of raising $120 million to fund the program, allowing for a budget of $120 per resident per year, for a total of $600 throughout its five-year duration. His goal was to achieve such undeniable success that the major foreign aid donors – the Americans, the Europeans, the Japanese – would then leap at the chance to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into replicating the Project throughout the African continent.

You don’t need to know any more than this to understand that Sachs’ vision was fatally flawed and the Millennium Villages Project doomed to failure. An investment of $600 per person in lifting people out of poverty is an unconscionably large amount of money that no one in his right mind would ever agree to replicate. In any case, we learned long ago (or at least should have learned) that you can’t donate people out of poverty: what would come after the five years, the $600 were used up, and the Project staff no longer around? Would anyone in the villages have learned anything except that manna came from heaven? And, to top it off, the foreign aid agencies, the World Bank, and other big funders all had agendas of their own and would be extremely unlikely to follow Sachs’ lead even if they didn’t already consider him an arrogant and misguided pest. Regardless of the Project’s outcome, they were never going to fund its rollout.

If you have any field experience in developing nations working with people who live on, say, $2 a day or less, you’re not likely to find any surprises in The Idealist. The Millennium Villages Project failed in ways that were entirely predictable. But you may well enjoy the tale nonetheless. The author lays it out in devastating detail.

Once upon a time Jeff Sachs was a superstar. He was a wunderkind, a word that always seemed to be attached to his name in the voluminous press reports that featured him. Sachs was the guy who had miraculously rescued the economies of Bolivia and Poland with “shock therapy.” A Harvard professor of economics, an extraordinarily young tenured member of the faculty, he was widely regarded as the brightest light of the department, and for several years he could (apparently) do no wrong.

Then came Sachs’ assignment to Russia as it reemerged an independent nation from the ruins of the Soviet Union, and things didn’t work out so well. But Sachs protested that he wasn’t really in charge, and that the critics who characterized his performance there as subpar didn’t know what they were talking about. Somehow, he escaped with his reputation virtually unscathed. in 2002, Columbia University lured him away from Harvard with an obscenely large amount of money, including a $9 million town house in Manhattan, an endowed chair, and the leadership of an entity called the Earth Institute that allowed him to continue working as an international activist on the margins of academia. And when he turned his attention to world poverty, he somehow managed to raise an astonishing $120 million to fund his Millennium Villages Project – and even, five years later, an additional $60 million or so for a “phase two” of the project that hadn’t been originally planned.

That was then. Now, with a second major failure hanging so visibly around his neck, Jeff Sachs may well have seen the last of his 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps now people will be saying that Sachs was simply too smart for his own good.

Nina Munk is a long-time financial journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications. She is now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. In 2006, having had her fill of billionaires, she set out to learn and write about poverty. Sachs’ Millennium Villages Project was the biggest thing going, and she’d found her subject. She followed the Project’s work throughout its duration, including extended stays in the two Millennium Villages in Uganda and Kenya. The Idealist thus represents the culmination of years of work. It’s a brilliant example of honest, in-depth journalism of the sort so rarely seen in these hurried times.
Profile Image for April.
154 reviews43 followers
April 24, 2014
A masterful character study and window into the human experiences of the development enterprise.

Nina Munk, has, in my view, done a masterful character study of Jeffrey Sachs; her narrative captures his brilliance and passion, as well as his hubris and hyper-sensitivity to criticism. Her book also portrays, at a human level, some of the persistent challenges and characteristic failings of the development enterprise.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the efforts outsiders make to "develop" poor countries and poor people will want to read this book. It should be required reading for development students and professionals.

The early section conveys Sachs' impressive intellectual gifts and achievements (tenured Harvard professor at 28). Most of Munk’s narrative, however, focuses on his efforts to help developing countries. He starts out providing advice to Bolivia and Poland - on macroeconomics and stabilization - topics close to his research, and, on which he is an acknowledged expert. These early contributions are viewed positively. He provides similar support to Russia's more problematic reforms in the 90s. Discussing Russia's disappointing results, Sachs blames Robert Rubin, Dick Cheney and Larry Summers (p 22). This is the first manifestation of his delusions about the primacy of influence outsiders have on how a country or society evolves; it is far from the last.

Despite the Russian disappointments, Sachs had acquired a taste for engaging in real world events, and especially helping to fix other countries. In the early 2000s, he broadens his activities well beyond his professional expertise, and sets his sights on ending poverty in the developing world.

Sachs determines the world’s poor are stuck in a "poverty trap" and an intense package of coordinated support (a "big push") is what is needed to get them out. He contrasts this with traditional development assistance which he perceives to be too piecemeal and fragmented. Eventually, this led him to launch the Millenium Village initiative. Sachs passion and advocacy skills allowed him to mobilize millions of dollars to demonstrate the transformative power of this new, and improved, development strategy. In researching her book , Nina Munk spent considerable time over 6 years in two "Millenium Villages" supported by the Sachs-led project. The effort pays off; this part of the book really shines. Munk tells the story of implementing Sachs vision in a Kenyan village (Dertu) and a Ugandan one (Ruhiira). She captures essential elements of the complex relationship between "the helpers" and those whom they wish to help. Her portrayal of individual aid recipients and implementers is compelling and compassionate. She conveys much of what is involved, on the ground, up close and personal, with implementing aid. And, she captures something of what it feels like to be a recipient of development assistance. In doing so, she captures, at a human level, some of the persistent challenges and characteristic failings of the development enterprise.

Munk shows how important a compelling vision is to mobilizing attention and funding. And she shows the mechanics of how this vision can break down when it meets reality and real people. She shows just how it is that "top down" approaches to helping far-away people fail.
Profile Image for Pooja.
40 reviews13 followers
February 22, 2014
I want to share this book with all my stateside friends who believe poverty can be "solved," if only there is enough (mzungu/blan/foreigner) will and money. It's a good explanation of why not. And yet, The Idealist is very much a story, not a treatise or piece of pedantry. Munk pays attn to the right things, I think, and she's a really skillful writer. She trusts the reader-- a rarity in the development critique genre. At times the book made me laugh with sorry glee.

Profile Image for Frank Stein.
990 reviews135 followers
December 4, 2013
This is a genuinely scathing portrait, albeit colored somewhat by the author's obvious personal distaste for Jeffrey Sachs.

For a few years, Munk sporadically trailed the famous Sachs and continually returned to two of his "Millennium Village Projects." These projects were started in 2006 across Africa with the goal of ending all poverty in them within five years, hoping to prove that world poverty could be just as easily ended with the sufficient application of effort and resources. As Sachs says time and again, "The debate is over...We know how to end poverty in our lifetime." All the world has to do is care enough and spend enough.

As one might figure it's not that simple. After raising a few hundred million from George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, and the Quiznos fast food chain family, among others, Sachs hires "change agents" in the communities to bring them anti-malaria bed-netting, hospital cots, electricity, cell-phones, fertilizers, and other signifiers of development. There are, without a doubt, obvious and immediate improvements: tin roofs replace thatch ones, malaria and child mortality drop, local roads are graded if not paved.

But it becomes complicated quickly. Even when more corn is grown with new fertilizers, there is no way to get it to market and much of it goes to waste. When a generator is brought for a hospital, minor missing parts or lack of fuel keep it almost permanently out of commission. When his early surge of charity doesn't seem to spark actual "development," Sachs, without admitting any lack of foresight, switches to funding small "business" plans, like a livestock market in Dertu, Kenya, that quickly go bust with much of the money seemingly stolen. Meanwhile many of the "change agents" who distribute the money have become uncrowned kings of their villages. In one harrowing scene a change agent lays down on his pillowed cots eating and drinking as rows of supplicants come to receive his graces. When some come to ask for the project's one car so that they can take an old man having seizures to the hospital, the agent claims sleepiness and begs them to just "pick him up in the morning." He meant his body. This is not what Sachs envisioned.

In the face of such evidence, Sachs's attitude and egotism seem even more inexcusable. In one scene he barges into the World Banks' Tanzania Country Directors' Office and, without any small-talk, demands that he start distributing bed nets and eliminate their funding program for bed net producers, telling "Jim" that he needs to just think about the children. "Jim" reminds Sachs that he is not a newbie in this field, and that there is a legitimate debate about the need to establish permanent bed net production in this country versus mere distribution of nets, and that his name is actually John. Sachs then proceeds to continue yelling without a break at John. Groups of people from USAID and the UN and elsewhere have to constantly remind Sachs that they are not children and he is not the only one who cares about alleviating poverty. When Esther Duflo, the MIT poverty researcher, gently criticizes Sachs for not running any trials to see if his interventions are working, and offers her help in doing so, Sachs rebuffs her and degrades her methods.

In the end, Sachs has to quietly extend the supposed date of the "end of poverty" in these villages to ten years, now 2016. In the meantime, he seems to have lost interest in the grand vision he once trumpeted everywhere from MTV to the UN, and has turned to decrying income inequality and banking practices in the US, this time to similar acclaim and adulation. Munk, for all her faults, seems to be the only one writing about the mixed legacy Sachs left behind.
Profile Image for Andrew.
2,024 reviews728 followers
April 1, 2019
I've been reading a lot about international development lately, which largely comes from the fact that I live in a country that was "developing" not very long ago, and which can't seem to get above the first-and-a-half world.

After deciding that more or less everything I'd been reading was neoliberal claptrap, I decided to read something on the same topic, but with less of an agenda and more of an honest, journalistic approach. Thus I wind up reading Nina Munk's "The Idealist," and I want to use a copy to smack every Ted-talking blowhard across the head.

Watch the aid money flow in and devolve into tropical Kafkianism. Watch Jeffrey Sachs have little meltdowns on the reg. Watch as you see everything (predictably) fucking up and (unpredictably) just how it happens.
Profile Image for Andy.
1,447 reviews480 followers
April 20, 2014
"Narcissist" may have been a better title than "Idealist." Jeffrey Sachs, as portrayed in this book, is not a saintly genius beset by harsh reality. Rather, he is a crazy jerk insulting everyone who disagrees with him, rushing into a field where he has no expertise, diverting tens of millions of dollars into his untested vision, then lying about the results of his big gamble, scapegoating the locals for his failures, all the while refusing to do any sort of scientific evaluation of his scheme.

The novelty of the Millennium Villages Project was the concept that five years of pouring money into a destitute village would get it out of poverty. On the white board in New York City, this is as good as any other wild idea. The question is what do you do after that brain flash?

Nina Munk deserves credit for going beyond celebrity worship to independent verification of facts. She traveled to Africa on her own to see how the MVP was actually faring. She found disillusionment.

The trouble with doomed personality-driven projects like MVP, and the books about them, is that they make foreign aid seem hopeless. It would have been nice to get factual information woven in somewhere about the characteristics of successful projects in Africa, or the history of countries that successfully got out of poverty and made big gains in public health. Munk quotes pople like the "Poverty Lab" at MIT, explaining what was wrong with the MVP before it started, but without more background, the reader can dismiss that as just he-said/she-said trash-talking between competitors. It would have been good to have a post-mortem epilogue explaining what was right and wrong about MVP, based on common elements of successful community-level projects. This could help readers and donors to want to be a part of effective solutions.

23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang Bad Samaritans The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang The Making of a Tropical Disease (Johns Hopkins Biographies of Disease) by Randall M. Packard Give a Little How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World by Wendy Smith

Profile Image for Unwisely.
1,418 reviews14 followers
February 20, 2018
I stumbled across this book entirely by accident, but was glad I did. I actually studied something abutting this topic in grad school, and the millennium development goals were Hot Stuff. I had enough experience in Latin America and Africa to be skeptical, but then I graduated and got a job in a totally different field, and really haven't kept up with things.

And hey, there are lot of things I am skeptical of that I would love to work out for the best.

It might be a worthwhile read if you're curious. Or it might just crush your soul into little bits.
Profile Image for David Sasaki.
244 reviews349 followers
April 4, 2015
Nina Munk accomplishes two feats in one short, easy-to-read book. First, she offers an archetypical character portrait of the type of person we have all met: charismatic, intelligent, influential and arrogant. These people are immediately impressive; we are entranced by their eloquence and confidence — as Nina Munk was at first by Jeffrey Sachs. It’s only after we follow them for years and dig deeper that we realize there is often more arrogance and hunger for attention than intellect and empathy. Second, Munk describes the cyclical failures of aid and development, and delves into the research to explain some of the reasons for those failures. For at least half of the book, she describes development’s shortcomings from the perspective of those who are meant to benefit from all this work and investment — a rarity in development literature.

It’s a book of show, not tell. This is as close as Munk gets to making an explicit argument:

The term "rural development tourism" was coined by the scholar Robert Chambers in Rural Development, his influential 1983 book about why outsiders remain ignorant about rural poverty. His thesis, in short, is this: with their “hectic excursions from the urban center,” development experts don’t see behind the facade. The more distinguished a visitor happens to be, the greater his ignorance and self-deception. “They come, and they sign the book, and they go. They only talk with the buildings, writes Chambers, quoting destitute Africans. “They don’t realize there are living people here.”

Jeffrey Sachs’s observations on the ground were necessarily limited — by the pressures of time, by language, culture, education, background, preconceptions, and ingrained models of thought. Wherever he went in Africa, he was greeted by a spectacle: villagers danced for him, dignitaries put on their Sunday suits and praised him, dozens of photos were snapped, and just before his arrival, schools and clinics were scrubbed clean. His view of what was happening in the [Millenium Villages] wasn’t wrong; it was incomplete. Real progress had been made, by all means; nevertheless, the villages had serious, deep-rooted problems, problems that for one reason or another Sachs received to acknowledge.

I subscribe to the semi-mystical view that the right books find us at the right time. This one certainly did. It stood out among several thousand at a small, chaotic bookstore in New Delhi’s Khan Market. I started reading it days before I traveled to rural Bihar to do some “rural development tourism” of my own. I joined a researcher from a prestigious American university to study the use of communications to promote healthy behaviors among young women during pregnancy and the first three years of the child’s life — little things like taking iron supplements during pregnancy, exclusive breastfeeding for the child’s first six months, and then discredit Nina Munk and her book. The same character traits that have alienated so many of his would-be allies come through clearly in the way he dismisses her careful research and thoughtful writing. That said, he does have a point that it’s still early for an authoritative pronouncement on whether the Millennium Villages Project was effective at improving health and development outcomes. 2015 is meant to be the year of “extensive data collection,” which will feed a final evaluation for publication in mid-2016. Development evaluation experts
Profile Image for martha.
570 reviews53 followers
October 27, 2014
Choose your own review:

1. This should be required reading for anyone who wants to work in development. An alternatingly heartbreaking and salacious, schaudenfreud-y read about how good intentions and massive resources can still fail spectacularly. Especially when the problem is something as complex as (a) poverty, (b) the systems surrounding economic and social development and (c) the development industry itself.

2. I picked this up in the context of knowing Sachs as being often at the center of various kinds of industry drama and specifically at the center of internet comment wank regarding this book, Bill Gates and an out of control comments thread. In that sense it's a bit popcorn.gif-esque. Facepalm moments of particular note: the conversation with Ugandan President Musaveni about crop yields; the part with an out of control angry reply-all email thread about bednets; massive misunderstandings and screw-ups about people as people with preferences and incentives -- Ugandans hate corn, so why force them to grow it? Nomads don't want to sell their camels in a livestock market because they're a sign of wealth. But it's also about something I WANT him, or someone, to succeed at, so it's super frustrating at the same time.

3. It's weird to read for fun a book about the same thing I do for work. I guess that's what it's like having a Real Career? Too bad this was sometimes so demoralizing I couldn't listen to it in my downtime without feeling bleak about all my own work.

There was also an astounding shift over the course of the Millennium Villages Project covered in this book from explicit derision of business-based development approaches to explicit adoption of business-based development approaches (... but in an apparently slapdash, unfeasible way), that I wish had been specifically called out and explored.

4. Once upon a time there was a guy who thought there was a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet.
Profile Image for Jeff Hunt.
20 reviews5 followers
January 3, 2014
Per the back jacket of The Idealist: “Nina Munk’s book is an excellent – and moving – tribute to the vision and commitment of Jeffrey Sachs, as well as an enlightening account of how much can be achieved by reasoned determination” – Amartya Sen, winner of Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Development as Freedom

Hello, did she read the book? At best, Sachs comes across comes across as a tragically naïve figure who believes his Millennium Villages Project will succeed at eliminating extreme poverty in Africa where so many other better funded projects have failed miserably. At his worst, he is a hubris filled egomaniac intolerant and condescending towards the views and input from the African development establishment.

When the project fails to achieve his 5-year objectives established upfront at project’s inception, he extends and pretends – i.e. raises an additional round of funding and calls for the village’s self-sufficiency after 10 years. By the end of the book, it’s apparent that the only way that the project is sustainable is by securing permanent sponsorship which does not appear to be forthcoming.

And while it would be easy to forgive Sachs given his obvious good intentions, his harsh words and treatment of his critics in the development community does not invite sympathy.

Munk’s account of the Millennium Villages Project is very well done. This is a worthwhile read if for nothing else it demonstrates the challenges in combating extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Profile Image for Max.
396 reviews26 followers
June 15, 2014
This was a concise, engaging and mostly balanced look at Jeffrey Sachs' Millennium Village Projects.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this book was its brevity. The author is a journalist who spent several years covering Sachs' MVPs. She had a lot of access to Sachs and to his staff, both in New York City and on the ground in the villages; she even sat in on a number of meetings between Sachs and country leaders and high ranking development officials. And she spent considerable time in the villages, talking to people and witnessing the development of the MVPs. Yet despite the huge amount of material that she no doubt collected, the book avoids the traps of many journalistic accounts. It is concise, it never gets repetitive, and it doesn't overstep its author's expertise. It also attempts to give a balanced look at the projects. It starts out cautiously optimistic, perhaps caught up in the aura of Sachs' unreserved confidence; it ends with several poignant accounts of the failings of the MVPs and the frustrations of Sachs and his staff. Sachs comes off as a pretty dislikable figure for his arrogance and pettiness, but you never get the feeling that she is being unfair to him.

This isn't a brilliant book of development theory, but it is a highly readable account of one of the more famous and controversial development experiments of recent times.

78 reviews3 followers
March 2, 2018
A fair reading

Nina does a great job showing how persuasive Jeffrey Sachs is and how the energy and excitement changed over time as the complexity of the project increased. This is helpful introductory book to show that our 'great' and glamorous ideas are often not do great after all. Reducing poverty sounds great but is very difficult. Is it better to give hope, save a few lives, and improve conditions for only a few years, or to remain patient and take more time to understand what really works too reduce poverty?
Profile Image for Ryan.
31 reviews4 followers
February 3, 2015
An intriguing (and sad) story of seeing what the Millennial Development Projects were like in actual implementation. Welcome to international development. After listening to Sachs being interviewed on Russ Roberts' EconTalk podcast, I would say that Nina Munk seems to have accurately portrayed Sachs' personality and ego. I wish she would have further explored the greater debate on development with more quotes from Easterly, Moyo, Collier, etc.
Profile Image for Yasmin Zeidan.
76 reviews2 followers
September 14, 2023
I just find it fascinating how people can ardently and unequivocally believe in things (ideas, concepts, entire ideologies, etc). I think Sachs is cool, he stood his ground no matter what. He surely did more good than bad, but the technique was never sustainable. He surely had a will and thought he had a way.

I took a development class last semester that was excellent and sooo well rounded. Jeff sachs was mentioned here and there but the millennium villages project was a mere bullet point in a sea of slides. Learned loads from this. Really contextualized the different ‘schools’ of thinking within development. Also I’m glad that specific villages were highlighted with a good amount of political and historical context. Didn’t know about Dertu and its ethnic tensions before. Glad the author developed the profiles of Ahmed and Sriri quite well.

This book reads more like a journalistic piece, which i was so glad about as I have no brain capacity for technicality or academic writing. I appreciated that the author never missed to point out the wealth divide between the architects of the program and recipients of the program. I can never not think of how to some, ‘Africa’ can be a playground for testing economic programs.
Profile Image for Ashley.
34 reviews2 followers
February 10, 2023
3.5 stars.

Sort of have a love/ hate relationship with Sachs. I admire his boldness challenging the status quo and bringing to light the blatant fact that yes we COULD and SHOULD end extreme poverty with political and economic will. I don’t disagree with challenging how multilateral and bilateral aid orgs deal. But Sachs crossed ethical boundaries imho and left me with a taste of neocolonialism; I started to dislike Sachs more and more throughout the book. Not to mention the implementation was problematic of the Millenium Villages Project - majorly lacking community buy-in and stakeholder engagement. I’m not sure in what the heck world Sachs thought this project was $$ sustainable. At the end of the day, this project didn’t even have a relevant study design or evaluation plan!! Sigh.

Aid isn’t the answer, accompaniment is.
17 reviews
July 6, 2022

An insightful and ultimately frustrating glimpse into the process of administering foreign aid and the various issues that impede that aid. Munk does a great job at providing easy to read material that tugs at the heartstrings of any reader that wishes the end of suffering, only to bombard them with a record of incompetent acts that demonstrates a lack of understanding on what measures progress.

Had to take away a star because the author doesn't take an objective stance as a journalist and seems overtly critical of Jeffrey, even though it may be entirely warranted.
29 reviews
September 15, 2022
A good snapshot of how supposedly the best and brightest come up with ideas that will solve problems that have existed since the dawn of time AND YET completely fail at it when they come up against local human capital and customs.
Profile Image for Christine Liu.
241 reviews68 followers
October 29, 2014
Although The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time has been on my to-read list for years, what I knew of Jeffrey Sachs before reading this book comes mostly from taking his course, “The Age of Sustainable Development”, on Coursera. It’s clear watching his lectures that he knows a lot about the topic and that he’s incredibly passionate about what he believes is the central challenge of our time - how to create sustainable economic prosperity in a way that is equitable and inclusive for all of the 7.2 billion and counting people on the planet today, over 1 billion of whom are currently living in a state of extreme poverty without access to clean water, adequate health care, or basic sanitation. Sachs’ conviction that this kind of crippling poverty can be eradicated with a massive outpouring of foreign aid and his work in developing the Millennium Villages Project are the central focus of Nina Munk’s book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the the Quest to End Poverty.

The Millennium Villages Project began in 2005 as a $120 million undertaking to achieve replicable development models in 14 small villages in sub-Saharan Africa using an aggressive multi-pronged intervention to simultaneously tackle such issues as preventing malaria with mosquito nets, transitioning from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture with high-yield seeds and fertilizers, programs to increase school attendance, and improving healthcare and access to much needed medical supplies to lift people out of the so-called poverty trap, “an overwhelming, interconnected burden of disease, illiteracy, high fertility rates, dismal agricultural productivity, lack of capital, weak or nonexistent infrastructure, debt, hunger, drought, malnutrition…” While there’s no question that Sachs is a driven and tireless individual who cares deeply about the plight of the developing world and that his heart is in the right place, the reality that emerges from this book is rather disheartening.

Munk focuses primarily on two of the millennium villages - Dertu, Kenya and Ruhiira, Uganda - and documents the challenges that these communities encounter over a span of several years and what the impact of these aid projects means in human terms to a small, rural community on a person to person scale. One key difficulty is the cultural and psychological disconnect between the people developing the projects and the people the projects are supposed to benefit. For example, creating a local livestock market in Dertu may make economic sense from a Western “time is money” perspective that assumes that time saved in not having to travel long distances means money saved in the long run, but it fails to take into account the fact that the largely pastoral people of Dertu and other nearby villages would don’t mind undertaking a four-day trek for a marginally better selling price or the fact that for Somalis, the number of animals someone owns is more important as a status symbol than the actual monetary value they could fetch in the marketplace.

Another program to extend agricultural credit to farmers also failed when low-interest loans were indiscriminately handed out to farmers with no credit history. In the end, the MVP was unable to recover its investment after two-thirds of the farmers defaulted due to various reasons: their crops failed, they secretly resold the fertilizer they were given, they used the loan money for non-agricultural purposes, or they just didn’t understand the terms of the loan. At other times, villagers resisted advice to cut tall grass for fear of angering the gods while women continued to practice genital mutilation and brush off outside attempts at reform with the casual observation that “mzungu (Westerners) come and mzungu go", the One of the greatest criticisms of Sachs and aid projects like the MVP is that they create a culture of dependency and perpetuate the myth that the world’s poor can only be saved by foreign aid, and many people throughout the book ask variations of the question, what happens when the workers leave? What happens when the funding runs out?

There are no easy answers when it comes to the issue of alleviating poverty, and Munk does a wonderful job of illustrating the complexities and barriers that exist despite the best intentions of some of the most brilliant minds. The scope of Sachs’ optimism, his contentiousness when faced with skepticism and dissent, and the ultimately uninspiring outcomes of his Millennium Villages Project make him an easy target for critics to pass scathing judgments about expensive aid projects that are debilitating, short-sighted, and only exacerbate the problem. However, this story in Munk’s hands is a well-written and graceful work of journalism that offers a eye-opening look at what happens when an ambitious and admirable mission falls somewhat short of its vision. It’s a fascinating and easy to read introduction to the complexities of international development and is recommended reading for anyone with an interest in global poverty.
74 reviews
March 2, 2023
Well reported account of Jeffrey Sachs's Millenium Village Approach. I think I will assign it to my students next year as an example of how improvement can be made in development but also how big theories of development economics can fail. The book does a great job of showing how good intentions can struggle in the face of development economics.
Profile Image for Kristin.
313 reviews13 followers
October 15, 2013
The book is the product of journalist Nina Munk's six year coverage of Jeffrey Sachs' quest to end global poverty. Sachs, an economist who apparently did some big things for the economies of Bolivia and Poland back in the day, wrote a famous book called The End of Poverty in 2005 and then went on to spearhead The Millennium Villages Project, an initiative seeking to eradicate poverty in Africa through huge influxes of foreign aid.

The progression of the project over six years is fascinating, especially given that it starts out with the charismatic Sachs convincing (duping?) a lot of wealthy people and governments into thinking that the solutions to global poverty are simple, and given enough money, poverty can be eliminated in the foreseeable future. By the end of the book, innumerable catastrophes with the project have been documented, deadlines have been extended, and Sachs continues to call for more and more money to prop up an initiative that seems anything but sustainable.

It's hard for this book to not make me feel completely cynical about charity (especially the newly coined "charitable-industrial complex"),but I think it's important that this issue not be simplified and dumbed down. I remember years ago hearing Bono on TV say: "Africa is bursting into flames while we all stand around with watering cans." At the time I felt hugely guilty, but now I can see that this is a hugely over-simplified claim (and Bono was mentored by none other than Jeffrey Sachs). What exactly does that watering can look like? Micro-loans for small businesses? Wells? Medical equipment? Widespread distribution of anti-malarial bed nets? After reading Munk's stories about excess crops spoiling for lack of storage and buyers (after villagers were given fertilizer to increase yields), and sophisticated medical equipment sitting unused for the lack of anything to power it with, and bed-nets being taken from children's beds to protect livestock, these "simple solutions" seem a lot less simple.

How do we help people, really help them, rather than just hopping on "simple solution" bandwagons designed to assuage our Western guilt?

Oh, and I am required to disclose that I received a free copy of this book for review from Goodreads' First Reads program.
Profile Image for Chara.
13 reviews1 follower
October 3, 2019
I had really high hopes about this book but, in the end, it's just a report on a failed project or, to generalize, on how giving money to poor countries doesn't reduce poverty. It was very clear that the project didn't work as planned, but the key reasons behind it are not analyzed in depth (the author does list a few complaints from the community that I actually enjoyed reading). Importantly, no alternative solution was suggested, we're just left at "throwing money to this problem doesn't help". On top of that, I didn't like the somewhat cold and impersonal writing style (but other reviewers praise how well-written it is, so..)
Profile Image for Jlf888.
25 reviews1 follower
August 31, 2014
Nina Munk has produced a highly readable book about a complicated man and an even more complicated topic: international development. She sets out to weave together the story of Jeffery Sachs with the stories of people from two of the sites (one in northern Kenya and one in Uganda) of his famous Millennium Villages Project and ends up doing an elegant job. Munk manages to present a balanced view of Sachs through a journalistic yet not dispassionate telling of what really happens - the successes and the abject failures - when various people from different continents and wildly different viewpoints come together to try to "eradicate poverty" in a village-comprehensive way. I was left feeling conflicted about Sachs and asking myself questions about "style vs substance" which, I think, are particularly relevant in any work across cultures. More than that, it's valuable for books about development to be accessible to everyone - to bring to the page the lives of people, to problematize all of our approaches, and to raise more questions than they answer - and Munk has achieved those aims here.
Profile Image for Tie Kim.
133 reviews1 follower
August 18, 2014
I thoroughly enjoyed Nina Munk’s value-free account of the Millennium Villages Project launched in Africa in 2005 at an initial cost of $120 million. Irrespective of your opinion of the impassioned Jeffrey Sachs, who possesses a sharp mind and an equally sharp tongue, Mrs. Munk’s 6 years of research - which included countless interviews with Mr. Sachs and numerous visits to the Northern Eastern Province in Kenya, and Ruhiira, Uganda - is finely represented. Her storytelling is superb and supported with cogent documentation.

Favorite quotes:

* Sachs: “One day’s Pentagon spending could every sleeping site in Africa for 5 years with antimalaria bed nets.”
* Julie McLaughlin, World Bank: “Giving away free bed nets is not development - it’s charity.” She protests that this will destroy the already existing private markets, arguing, who would replace the bed nets once their shelf life (~ 4 to 5 years) has passed?
* Kenyan change agent and social worker: “A human being is only orderly when things are in plenty.”
Profile Image for Dan Mccarthy.
27 reviews1 follower
September 13, 2013
Nina Munk compellingly captures the tension between abstract concepts and human lives in this immersive examination of the thinking behind and the experiences within Jeffrey Sachs Millennium Villages Project. What is the real impact, in personal, human terms, when $120 million is poured into rural, sustenance-level communities? Munk juxtaposes the stories of Sach's insistent conviction that poverty is a scale problem that can only be solved with scale solutions with the struggles that confront the project villages in Africa that benefit from his largesse.

This is old-fashioned reporting in the absolute best-way: Munk lets us see, assess and judge for ourselves. And she helps us along the way with assured writing that captures the moment, the people and the place in the best way: vivid and crisp.

Absolutely recommend the book.
Profile Image for Tatiana.
21 reviews
May 20, 2023
Very interesting. Made me think of the aid programs in my country (Dominican Republic) and of "one-size-fits-all" approaches. Also made me question what is culture and what is just plain wrong no matter how you look at it. Does the term "brainwashing"only apply when it's to enforce a concept you don't agree with? Is it any different when we enter someone else's space and tell them what to do according to our beliefs?
14 reviews
November 16, 2014
Blame Intro to Global Economics class with a Canadian professor.

This book was AMAZING. I found myself attached to it during every break I had at work, down time at school, and days off.

This book was assigned to read and to write a critical book review for my global economics class at the University of Washington.

So many great points were brought up that meant a great deal to me throughout this book. It has given me a whole new outlook on poverty, not just in Africa, but anywhere. Poverty, even to the extreme, is EVERYWHERE.

I definitely recommend anyone who has a charitable heart to really give this book a go. I'm not much of a reader but this book was SO well written, easy to understand, and shows a whole new perspective on things.
Profile Image for Leigh Matthews.
Author 5 books90 followers
September 30, 2013
A highly accessible and fascinating insight into international development and the incredible tenacity of Jeffrey Sachs. Munck strikes the perfect balance between storytelling and factual reportage, and is deft in her handling of what could have been, in the hands of another writer, a damnation of an overzealous western idealist meddling in other countries' affairs.

At times tragic, horrifying, inspiring, and optimistic, The Idealist has certainly given me an enthusiasm to read more about international development, the impact of cultural misunderstandings on the success of foreign aid, and, of course, an appreciation for the luxuries often taken for granted.
Profile Image for Alexandria.
864 reviews17 followers
June 17, 2015
I will admit that I did not read the back carefully enough when I picked up this book. I was hoping for a happy ending, and that's not exactly what you get with this book.

What you DO get, however, is something I prize much more highly: realism. This book not only outlines how the Millenium Villages project failed, but why. Ignorance of cultural expectation, ignorance of cultural preference, Eurocentrism... the list could go on but those three really seemed to be the worst of it. And for someone who wants to see the world become more sustainable to see people lifted out of the kind of poverty that Sachs was dealing with, this was a valuable wake up call.
Profile Image for Jessica.
58 reviews12 followers
September 13, 2016
I've been spending some time with Jeffrey Sachs lately, so I thought I should read up on critique's of his development agenda/campaign/ideology. The whole book is well-written and fast-paced, with an intimate tone. The first half is quite positive regarding Sachs, but the author becomes disillusioned as the years wear on. I would recommend this book if you're interested in a) development b) Africa c) Economists who try to branch out d) the allure of simple solutions to complex problems, e) Jeffrey Sachs. (Did you know he had an MTV show with Angelina Jolie about development in Africa?)
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