Book – The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty

2013-09-02-TheIdealist   nina-munk

Title: The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty (to see an excerpt from the book click here)

Author: Nina Munk

Published: 2013

Pages: 272 pages (kindle edition)

Brief Summary – This book is written by a journalist, Nina Munk, who was originally writing a short article on Jeff Sachs and the Millennium Development Villages (MDV) project, which she decided to turn into a book.  It takes a critical look at Sachs as the director, and a look at the project itself.  The Millennium Development Villages are a series of towns in sub-Saharan Africa which were chosen to be case studies for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  Sachs wanted to show that if enough money was donated by the richest countries, then it would be possible to improve everything in a village at once (healthcare, economic prosperity, infrastructure, etc.) in order to lift everyone out of extreme poverty.  However, Munk describes some of the challenges faced in the process of this project, and why it may not be a realistic plan for future endeavours.


Jeffrey Sachs (basic bio) – Jeffrey Sachs is a world-famous American economist, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General (Ban Ki-Moon, previously Kofi Annan) on the MDGs and, most importantly the director of the Millennium Development Villages project.  He is also author of The End of Poverty, which shares his strategies and ideas for helping to lift the worlds poorest onto the bottom rung of the economic ladder (so that they will be able to help themselves climb out of poverty).

Jeffrey Sachs (Critical Look) – It is great that in the book, Nina Munk describes both the positive and negative traits of Sachs himself (which provide insight into the project he created and is in charge of). Sachs has a very intense personality.  He is intensely passionate and aware about the issues which are the cause and effect of extreme poverty.  He is not afraid to speak his mind to get what he thinks is right.  The great thing about this is that he will tell important organizations and heads of state exactly what must be done. He’s not afraid to ask for money, or stand behind a very controversial idea if he thinks it’s a good cause.  However, he takes everything very personally, and obviously has a lot of his own reputation tied to the success of his ideas.  Therefore, although he started out with the idea of complete transparency, as the project continued, all failures were hidden from the public, or even falsely promoted as successes.  He also has a habit of being rude to people and claiming they are incompetent if they don’t agree with his ideas.  I find this particularly problematic, not just because it isn’t professional, but also because it hinders the ability to have a real conversation.  In every project there will be pitfalls or potential problems, and if no one is ever allowed to raise any concerns then it makes the project even more likely to fail.  The other issue is that Sachs claims he spends large amount of time in villages talking to locals, but this doesn’t seem to be true. In reality he flies into the country for a large ceremony when something opens, the locals perform for him and tell him everything is great, and a few hours later he is on his way.  This is not the correct way to get a real critical view of your project.  Perhaps he’s very busy, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have local people on the ground to tell him what’s really happening, and to listen whether the news is good or bad, in order to solve any problems that may arise.

Millennium Development Villages (MDVs) – The project this book follows was originally meant to be a 5 year plan, where a selection of down-on-their-luck villages from all over Africa were chosen as case studies for the MDGs.  Sachs would solicit money, and use that to hire local staff in each village to complete projects such as creating jobs, building/stocking hospitals, paying teachers, and other aspects of reducing poverty and improving human rights.  Although the project started out well, it became obvious fairly quickly that some of the goals were not reasonable.  Some of the major problems described in the book include:

  • A lack of communication with the local community members in order to find out their desires. (Example: a livestock trading market was constructed at considerable expense – but no one ended up using because it wasn’t seen as necessary by the local traders.)
  • A lack of transparency with the project once problems started to arise (and even outright lying to donors, saying projects were successful when they clearly were not).
  • A lack of consideration for local context (Example: there is often no access to electricity grid, therefore they need to run everything off of generators which uses a lot of fuel. Fuel is expensive and not readily available in the quantities needed for the hospital (for example) to run all the time.)
  • A very short time frame (5 years), which left little margin for error.
  • A lack of accountability and tracking of expenses/resources (Example: computers were donated for the school but there was no electricity to run them, and they went missing shortly after.)
  • A short-term problem strategy (Example: People have malaria, so let’s get donors to buy them all bed nets. However, without proper training, bed nets will not be used properly. Also, if bed nets are flown in from North America, it wipes out the bed net manufacturing industry locally, and leaves the people dependent on help in 5 years, once their net needs to be replaced.)
  • A lack of an exit strategy. After 5 years it was obvious that the project needed to continue if it were to succeed, so they added another 5 years to the plan.  However, it didn’t seem there was much coordination with local government or other community groups to carry on services after the funding had dried up.  Although the town was expanding and people were happier, it is obvious that doctors will leave once they are no longer paid, children will not be educated if they no longer have a teacher, and water sources will go dry or fall into disrepair unless someone is trained how to fix them.

Final Thoughts I think that Jeff Sachs has a great spirit,  He is really passionate about helping those in extreme poverty, and will do a lot of work to get them what he thinks will be in their best interest.  However, I think he has a big ego, and is unable to admit when something he has done is not successful in the end.  The MDV project was a great idea, but it needed much more planning and foresight. It needed more contribution from local community members, it needed much more monetary accountability, and it needed a longer deployment time, and more viable exit strategy.  I don’t think that the idea of the project is doomed to fail, however I do think that any future attempts should be more transparent throughout the process (especially in the face of failure) and account for some of the mistakes made in this project which caused it to fail.


About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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