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The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  1,219 ratings  ·  153 reviews
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
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published September 10th 2013 by Doubleday (first published January 1st 2013)
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Oct 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: econ, 1900s-ce, 2000s-ce
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, tel
Mal Warwick
Oct 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction

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 extraordinar
Oct 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to April by: Owen Barder
Shelves: non-fiction
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" p
Feb 22, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.

Frank Stein
Dec 02, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 say
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
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. (view spoiler)
David Sasaki
Apr 04, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 empath ...more
Apr 19, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"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.

Jul 11, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who doesn't understand why we can't solve poverty
Recommended to martha by: coworkers & colleagues
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
Jeff Hunt
Jan 03, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 po
Jun 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 th
Blake Jones
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
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. ...more
christine liu
Oct 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: five-stars
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 ...more
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, esp
Oct 03, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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" ...more
Aug 24, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 a ...more
Tie Kim
Aug 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 support ...more
Dan Mccarthy
Sep 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 t ...more
Anna Perry
Nov 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Leigh Matthews
Sep 23, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 intern
Apr 16, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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) Jeffr ...more
Donald Schopflocher
In my continuing reading in International Development, I have been struck by the incredible contrast between the optimistic views of Jeffrey Sachs and the World Bank on the one hand, and the pessimistic views of Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo on the other. Nina Munk to the rescue! Of course there is a middle ground, but it is profoundly disappointing to find out how far Sach's efforts fall short of his rhetoric, and further, that they fail for many of the reasons that Easterly has been pointing ...more
Anita Lyons
Aug 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
VERY interesting book for those who like to think about global development and poverty. I loved it because I was just in Mozambique thinking about these questions and I've read Jeffrey Sachs' "End of Poverty" where he basically says if rich countries would just give poorer countries ALOT more money, poverty could be fixed. This is the follow-up: how do his ideas work in the real world? (not really a spoiler: not so well...). Nina Munk does a nice job of telling a balanced, compassionate story th ...more
Rick Tetzeli
Aug 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a first-rate unwinding of Jeff Sachs' theorizing on the resolution of poverty in Africa. Bit by bit, Nina Munk lets the facts on the ground undercut Sachs' pontificating. It's a great read. It's also an accessible window into a world that's often too daunting and too weighed down by white papers for those of us who aren't experts. I'd recommend this to anyone at all interested in one of the great eternal conundrums: why can't poverty be eliminated in a world of such plenty for some? ...more
Alina Apine
Jan 11, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book manages to dive into the complexities of development, and how even though you may have the best intentions - you cannot control everything. It succeeds in portraying, how not only unpredictable weather, but the interaction between people from different cultures has an impact on development. It's also depressing, and sad at times. But for anyone thinking that there are simple solutions to complex issues- this manages to show, how it is not as simple and easy as we might wish it to be. ...more
Nov 18, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: work
Great reporting and insights into the challenges of ending extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. The main takeaway is that pumping money into poor villages will improve health and incomes somewhat, but building self-sufficiency is a much bigger challenge. So when the money leaves, all the progress basically stops too.
May 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is well written and reminds me that in this internet age of free news, there is still solid journalism. The description of the lives in poor parts of Africa is real, because the author was actually there. Not exactly an attack on Jeffrey Sachs, but a rather balanced account of how the Millennium Project failed to achieve its original goal of development. Well worth a read!
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Nina Munk is a prize-winning 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 has written or co-written 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 . ...more

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20 likes · 5 comments
“I know that if you spend enough on each person person in a village, you will change their lives. If you put in enough resources-enough mzungu,foreigners, technical assistance, and money-lives change. I know that....The problem is, when you walk, what happens? -Simon Bland” 2 likes
“It’s never enough,” he repeated, “but it is so much more than we had before. Without the Millennium project there would be no drugs, there would be no surgical equipment, there would be no way to operate the generator—I would be redundant most of the time. They say funding will continue, but someday it will stop, and when the funding stops, most likely everything we have done will be put to waste. I do not see how we are going to continue after they have left.” 1 likes
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