The Idealist by Nina Munk

The Idealist
Nina Munk

Anchor Books 2014
ISBN 978-0-7679-2942

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“. . . an engrossing account of how good intentions can breed more problems. . . “

Can we end poverty if we just toss enough money at the problem? Jeffery Sachs, an economist, professor and special advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations, believed you could. In 2006, he amassed $120 million in private donations, and government grants for the Millennium Villages Project in sub-Sahara Africa. Journalist Nina Munk, author of “The Idealist,” dedicated six years tracking Sachs’ efforts, and concludes that his theories were misguided when faced with reality.

Munk characterizes Sachs as someone who is driven with an “absolute conviction that the world can be changed for the better.” He believed that improved agricultural yields in Africa would add to economic growth and eliminate the need for emergency food aid. “He argued that fertilizer and hybrid seeds were the answer to extreme poverty,” she notes.

She focuses on two of the ten Millennium Villages, Dertu and Ruhiira, which together received more than $10 million over a five-year period. What failed, Munk maintains, is that Sachs did not account for human disasters, crime and corruption, and cultural and religious conflicts. In Dertu, the men claimed as descendants of Abraham, they could not perform certain jobs, such as clean newly installed latrines. People also abandoned their Nomadic ways and moved to Dertu when the money flowed, becoming a “refugee camp with people receiving handouts.”

In Ruhiira, the project distributed maize seeds.The yield was high, except no one would eat the maize since their diet already included matoke, a mash made from bananas. Ultimately, rats consumed most of the maize. Munk relies on a straightforward narrative style laced with examples where Westerners’ money-aplenty intervention delivered unintended consequences. Even Sachs acknowledges charity was not the answer so he added a loan program with equity investments encourage self-reliance, but the majority of loans were never repaid. Yet he still maintains much progress was made and the Millennium Villages Project remains funded.

Munk’s book is not an expose, but rather an in-depth personal view of what she saw unfold in six years. Her conversations with the locals and the people who worked on the ground for the project offer an engrossing account of how good intentions can breed more problems. But she lauds Sachs for allowing her complete access to the project and its staff, and says he never tried to censor her writings.

Reviewer: Kate Padilla