Commentary Magazine

Arrested Development

The Idealist
By Nina Munk
Doubleday, 272 pages

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.”

Sachs’s excesses are often evidence of just how serious he is, or at least how seriously he takes himself. He harangues everyone, from world-renowned epidemiologists to World Bank country directors to the president of Tanzania; he grandiosely declares that “the debate is over” once he gets his way on anti-malaria bednet distribution, and then accuses his critics of bad social science and bad faith when they question him. It’s unfair to place him within the time-honored American archetype of the noble con-man. Sachs, who granted an incredible degree of access to Munk, believes everything he is saying and doing, and his evangelizing is the exact opposite of con-artistry; it is idealism. Thus Munk’s non-ironic title.

Sach’s idealism is of a somewhat conservative sort. In one of the book’s more revealing passages, he explains that he isn’t a radical, and argues that the solution to global poverty is compatible with the realities of capitalism. Development and profit, as he sees things, are not competitors in a zero-sum game. Yet his village-level interventions rely on the same assumptions that underpin the contemporary welfare state. He champions top-down micromanagement and the transformation of economies, and believes there’s no problem that can’t be solved by a massive influx of resources. People in sub-Saharan Africa would simply be better off, Sachs believes, if a team of Ivy League economists restructured their lives by building them livestock markets, handing out low-interest loans, or selling them subsidized fertilizer. According to a 2007 internal memo that Munk obtained, the MVP maintained that its village clusters would be self-sufficient within five years.

Whatever Sach’s proclaimed ideology, the MVP was based on his conviction that rich societies, by virtue of their complacency and misplaced priorities, are culpable for the continued misery of poor societies: “This is how we allow fellow human beings to die, by doing nothing,” he says when touring an impoverished village in Uganda. This isn’t bad reasoning; it arguably forms the moral basis of a modern-day NGO industry that depends on the sense of humanitarian obligation that a secure, Western standard of living makes possible. But the MVP isn’t like Mercy Corps or the American Jewish World Service, organizations that target their efforts in a given place—Sachs’s explicit goal is to determine development policy for the entire world. Moreover, what he’s doing isn’t charity: He is an official adviser to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon; his project is UN- and USAID-endorsed and considered the most important initiative to come out of the vaunted Millennium Development Goals.

It turns out that Sachs’s “people are dying” argument is a woefully insufficient basis for actual policy. Among other problems, the relentless appeals to moral urgency replace any hope of much-needed self-reflection. When it becomes clear that the MVP doesn’t exactly work, Sachs is unwilling to question his own assumptions. The inhabitants of Dertu, in the ethnic Somali region of Kenya, basically become aid dependents; five years into the project, the small village turns into a sprawling shantytown, with no sustainable industries and little to suggest that the MVP’s improvements can endure after the project ends. In Ruhiira, Uganda, the introduction of corn as a potential cash crop leads to a massive surplus that the village can’t possibly unload, disrupting local market prices and souring farmers on the MVP in general. “Every intervention…had unintended consequences,” Munk writes.

In Mali, a seemingly thriving MVP cluster is all but destroyed during the country’s 2012 civil war, a stark demonstration of how development depends on political and social factors that are beyond any individual’s control. Most devastating for Sachs’s work is new evidence offered by respected development scholars Michael Clemens and Gabriel Demombynes that the Millennium villages don’t necessarily develop at a greater rate than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, and that improvements within them might be attributable to social and market factors that also have little to do with the MVP. Even the MVP’s own studies make the case against the effort’s effectiveness. Last year, an MVP-produced study in the Lancet failed to offer scientifically valid evidence that the villages’ development was actually due to project interventions, rather than general, continent-level improvements in health and prosperity.

Munk’s book is admirably short on polemic. Her exposure of the MVP’s flaws is a byproduct of careful, first-hand reporting. But the reporting doesn’t shy away from diagnosing fundamental problems with the MVP and the worldview of the man behind it. “To a large extent, [success] depended on Sachs’s idea of progress,” Munk writes. As she demonstrates, Sach’s notion of progress is rarely shared by those most directly affected by his efforts. To drive the point home, she offers a disquieting description of a female circumcision ceremony that takes place in Dertu even after the MVP has implemented changes. But Sachs believes that culture and human nature are irrelevant to his project, and therefore incapable of threatening it: “What look like immutable social values turn out to be highly malleable to economic circumstances and opportunities,” he writes in a passage from The End of Poverty that Munk pointedly quotes.

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 conventional 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.

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.

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