With the publication of his 2005 bestseller The End of Poverty, Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs rose to fame in the world of development economics. He became friends with Bono and filmed an MTV special with Angelina Jolie; less frivolously, in 2006 he founded the UN-endorsed Millennium Villages Project (MVP), one of the most ambitious experiments in the history of international development. Sachs believed it would transform the world’s outlook on extreme poverty. But as Sachs’s ideas proved short on empirical evidence and the MVP faced well-documented troubles, he ceased to be the superstar he once was. Nina Munk’s The Idealist is the definitive journalistic profile of Sachsism. Written over six years, with exhaustive on-the-ground reporting from two African communities that are part of MVP village clusters, Munk’s book is a readable and fast-paced chronicle of the real-world consequences of elite intellectual arrogance.
Sachs’s solution to poverty is straightforward. He reasons that donors in the developed world are not serious enough about the problem of poverty and are satisfied with a level of aid that is incapable of bringing poor societies to “the bottom rung of the development ladder.” He believes that massive, focused interventions in education, public health, and agriculture can create the stability necessary for long-term, self-sustaining development. Introduce high-yield seeds and fertilizers, control the spread of malaria, and send every child to school, and communities will become healthy and educated enough to increase their agricultural production and undertake small-scale commercial enterprises. This is what’s known in development circles as the “integrated” approach. Or, as Sachs tells Munk, “It’s what MTV would call Extreme Village Makeover.” Munk likens the MVP, which now covers 13 village clusters in eight African countries, to “a hugely ambitious social and economic experiment, a petri dish in the laboratory of Dr. Jeffrey Sachs.”
About the Author
Armin Rosen is a Washington D.C.–based writer. He has reported from Africa and the Middle East. This is his first appearance in Commentary.