Jeffrey Sachs speaks at anti-poverty rally at UNC Chapel Hill. Photo Credit: Kevin Tsui

Tracking One Man’s Quest to End Extreme Poverty


Jeffrey Sachs has twice been named among TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World”. The New York Times Magazine once described him as “probably the most important economist in the world”.

Sachs has devoted much of his career to figuring out how to end extreme poverty across the globe. He says if you give even the poorest communities enough money and resources, extreme poverty can actually be eradicated.

In 2006, Sachs set out to prove his theory with something of a test case. It’s called The Millennium Villages Project. Sachs chose a dozen sites around Africa, all of them places that faced severe economic hardship. Each village was given an infusion of cash and resources.

Author Nina Munk decided to document Jeffrey Sachs’ project. Her new book, The Idealist – Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, is a first-hand account of Sachs’ multimillion dollar effort to end poverty in Africa.  In our latest podcast, Munk tells us about the six years she spent reporting the story.

munk

Author Nina Munk is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair

Munk, a former Fortune magazine writer and Forbes editor, followed Sachs on his official trips to Africa. She visited and revisited two of the Millennium Villages sites, living among the people there, to see how the project was panning out on the ground. “I thought to myself, if one of the most admired, most respected macro economists in the world believes that we can end poverty in our lifetime, I’m willing to follow him and watch what happens.”

At first Munk saw real progress as the cash began flowing in to the villages. But later, she says all kinds of problems began to emerge. “In some ways, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.”

In her book, Munk describes failed projects, disenchanted villagers, and a host of unintended consequences.  She comes to realize that there is a chasm between theoretical ideas dreamed up in the United States and the harsh realities at the Millennium Villages sites.  Munk tells us that the people who had put together the concept were “mostly a bunch of academics back in New York City; well-intentioned academics but academics nonetheless, with little direct connection to Africa.”

I invited Jeffrey Sachs to an interview to respond to Munk’s book but Sachs’ representative declined, explaining that Sachs has a very busy schedule at this time of year. His representative provided this written statement:

The Millennium Villages Project is working successfully across the continent to help meet the Millennium Development Goals. Today, 23 countries have either started, or will soon be starting, projects based on the Millennium Village model. The project has contributed to global and national policy changes contributing to a massive reduction of deaths and disease from malaria, AIDS, and unsafe childbirth, and to many other improvements in daily life.

Recently, eight African national governments requested and received over $100 million in financing from the Islamic Development Bank to build or scale Millennium Village programs.

Africa is indeed succeeding in cutting poverty and fighting disease. The evidence is strong. We at Millennium Promise, together with governments across Africa, keep our eye on the prize of slashing extreme poverty.

For those who would like to learn more about the project, we encourage you to go to the project’s website, where you can listen to voices of African leaders and members of the Millennium Village communities themselves.

Photo of Jeffrey Sachs, courtesy Kevin Tsui, Flickr

27 Comments

  1. Great web site. Plenty of useful info here. I’m sending it to
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  2. Dawit

    Excellent book and interview. As an Ethiopia subject, i did digest your book and sort of reminds me of Lords of Poverty by Graham Hancock. Thanks and please know that those of us who come from the poorest countries and have had the fortunes of western education understand what you are talking about. I am deeply grateful for your work and Amy your interview was second to none. Cheers, Dawit

    • Amy

      Thank you, Dawit.

      It means a lot when our stories or interviews resonate with listeners who are actually from the regions we’re covering. Nina’s exhaustively researched and beautifully written story is investigative journalism at its finest. It was my pleasure and privilege to get the chance to speak with her about it.

  3. Bryan VN

    This quote from a review sums up the book best for me “If you find yourself entirely divided on the subject of extreme poverty and have precious little ambition to rectify that situation, I suggest you rush to buy The Idealist”
    For someone to have spent so much time reporting on this issue the details of Mr Sachs contrarian ego are insignificant to the effort he has coordinated and its objectives. A huge failure that is the only real reason for reading or writing a book of this nature if motives are to be seen as anything but calous.

    • Amy

      Hi Bryan.

      I’m assuming from your comments that you have indeed read the book and listened to my interview with Nina? If so, then I’m a little surprised that you didn’t come away with a much more nuanced and constructive message from The Idealist. In my interview with Nina, she makes clear that she set out to write a book about a man who was going to eliminate extreme poverty. As it turns out, that didn’t happen. So instead Nina, like any good journalist, reported what she observed.

      In her book and in our interview, Nina argues that Mr. Sachs’ ego may indeed have prevented him from seeing the failures that were occurring in the field, and from listening to feedback from people with significant expertise to share. So writing about that part of Mr. Sachs is indeed relevant. Having said this, I have found that Nina has been consistently generous in her praise for all that Mr. Sachs HAS achieved beyond the Millennium Villages Project.

      Finally, if you found Nina’s motives “callous” how would you describe the realities on the ground for those actually living day-to-day in the Millennium Villages Project itself? In her book, Nina describes in powerful detail the reality for residents over the course of several years. I’ve covered the business of “doing good” for a few years myself, and I’m more convinced than ever that the only way to judge the merits of our well-intentioned projects is by taking a hard look at how it’s panned out for the people we intend to help. With this barometer, then many constructive lessons may be drawn from Nina’s book.

      Respectfully,

      Amy

  4. Thanks Amy and Nina, this is a program I have been waiting for! After reading “The End of Poverty” in College and hearing initially very positive results, I noticed as the media stopped writing good news stories. Then the World Bank started to come out with more criticisms and after speaking with people familiar with the Tanzania MVP cluster, it became pretty clear things had gone wrong. But I haven’t heard a comprehensive story about what happened until now. Thank you.

    • Amy

      Yes, Tristan. Your comments speak to the value of tracking projects over several years to see how they pan out in the end. So much can be learned if we document well-intentioned programs but unfortunately this kind of reporting rarely happens. Nina’s book is an important contribution to our understanding of the complexities of international aid.

  5. Gabor Siklosi

    So refreshing to hear critical thinking wrestling with the underlying aspects of poverty alleviation! We are located in Guatemala, working directly with communities to address the pressing issues and we have been absolutely flabbergasted by the complexities of the “problem”. It is not enough to give things away, neither is it enough to just do “something”. We have chosen to walk out the issues with our friends and wrestle with them together and it is certainly the long way around this mountain! Thank you both for your balanced and critical viewpoints. I cannot wait to read the book!! SO encouraged by both of you and your valuable work!!

    • Amy

      Thank you, Gabor! Love your willingness to embrace complexity and to wrestle with tough issues. Doing good certainly ain’t simple, though we’d often like it to be.

      Wishing you continued success on your project in Guatemala. Please keep us posted about the lessons you’re learning!

  6. Jeannie Naujeck

    The reporter has earned her credentials and done critical and important work. She can’t change where she came from, and what does it matter anyway? She has chosen to work hard and do something important with her life, so let the work speak for itself. Can’t wait to read the book. Amy, great work too!

  7. Jamie

    Brilliant podcast
    I heard Sachs speak a few years ago in Mumbai and was appalled at how naive and self-righteous he came across.
    He spent a good deal of time criticizing the WSJ and implying some weird conspiracy against him. I was working for the WSJ at the time and never encountered any conspiracy to tar his name so found the whole ‘me vs. them’ angle utterly bizarre.
    This is probably the most articulate and well nuanced critique of the man I have come across. Very good job look forward to reading the book

    • Thanks for your kind words Jamie. I began the research for my book hopefully, but at some point realized with disappointment that the story I was writing resembled a classic Greek tragedy. In so many ways, and for so many reasons, it was a terribly sad realization to have. Yours, Nina

  8. I live and work in Africa. At the time i moved here i probably believed that “if you give even the poorest communities enough money and resources, extreme poverty can actually be eradicated”. now I certainly do not! Like Mr Sachs and alot of westerners i really thought poverty was about material things, or better put, the lack of them. Now i know that material prosperity is a by product of a host of non material factors that can really only be effected my poor socialites themselves. And sadly for those of us that wish to see poverty ended in our life time, these changes are probably going to take generations to effect change in Africa. Not unlike the time frame seen in the history of the societies that have already made the transition from poverty to prosperity.

    • Committing oneself to helping others is not a job for the impatient, as you know Ashley. Too often, I think, we want change to come quickly or we’re overly optimistic. But it is possible to change people’s lives in important ways. I’ve seen it firsthand in Africa, the way lives can be transformed by aid that’s well spent and managed. I’m sure you’ve seen it too. What’s important is to stay the course—and to be humble! Yours, Nina

  9. Nick Zbinden

    I do not fault the normal people for believing the stuff Sachs feeds them. But I do fault every economist and person actually interested in the subject, who does so.

    There is a long tradition of economists who point out that the high-minded western top-down designers are not actually improving anything, in the long run.

    I would suggest people read work of people like Peter Bauer or William Easterly.

    • Nick Zbinden

      I would want to add something now that I have listened to the last part of the programm.

      What I think is the most important point, is that the mentality, that ‘doing something’ is always better then ‘doing nothing’, is correct. That is only true when ‘doing something’ never means ‘doing something bad’. That is a point people who are arrogant, like Sachs, just dont seem to understand. They believe because they are ‘doing something’, they have the moral high ground and look down on us. If something they do fails, to such an extent that even they cannot claim success, they move on to the next thing and still look down on those people who where predicting failure.

      As lots of economists, journalists and others have pointed out, many projects over the years had negative consequences.

      Do we test medicine on people with the mentality that ‘doing something’ is better then ‘doing nothing’? Do we just give people hundreds of different substances and see if any of them work? That is a great way of getting results if the test subjects are expendable.

      In no other science do we just use people as test subjects so lightly and with so little accountability for failure. If one great plan fails, development economics just moved on to the next great plan. That is the history of the last 65 years of foreign aid.

      • Ashley Tuttle

        Great comments Nick.

      • Amy

        Some great points, Nick.

        I especially appreciate your questioning the prevailing wisdom that ‘doing something is better than doing nothing.’ It’s a flawed and dangerous concept that can often, though not always, lead to disastrous consequences. And it persists because we often have double-standards for programs carried out in the developing world versus those carried out in our own hometowns, with our own families.

        This was driven home to me when I reported on well-intentioned medical volunteers who went to Haiti. (http://www.tinyspark.org/podcasts/medical-volunteers) Among volunteers, and the general public, there was a prevailing notion that doing something (i.e., volunteering) was better than staying at home. However, every seasoned medical expert I spoke to who worked in Haiti post-quake, and who had lots of experience in post-crisis situations, told me it would’ve been better for untrained medical volunteers to stay home.

        We need to begin to raise the bar on what constitutes acceptable outcomes for aid projects. These days I wince when I hear new businesses being urged to “fail fast”. It may be appropriate for tech start-ups in Silicon Valley but I certainly hope it’s never the mantra for innovators in international relief and development.

        Thanks for writing and listening.

        Amy

      • Interesting point Nick. But are you saying that we shouldn’t test if things like bed nets work or not? I feel like if we don’t do things like randomized control trials or other intensive studies to see what works we will never know if people are being helped or not.

    • You’ve impsresed us all with that posting!

  10. Guy Fawkes

    Pot, meet kettle.

    Daughter of a mining magnate, educated in America’s finest northeast liberal arts colleges and 1% resident of NYC is here to save us from “a bunch of academics back in New York City; well-intentioned academics but academics nonetheless, with little direct connection to Africa.”

    Wow. Just….wow.

    • Amy

      That’s a curious response to a reporter’s six years of work, Guy! Have you listened to the full podcast and/or read Nina’s book? Given the seriousness and price tag of Sachs’ initiative, I find it surprising that you choose to focus on the personal background of the messenger. What about Nina’s message? A full 231 pages long, cover-to-cover? With 233 footnotes?

      If you’d like to weigh in on the successes of the “academics in New York”, on the merits or drawbacks of the Millennium Villages Project itself, or if you’d like to assess Professor Sachs’ theories for helping the millions across the world, who, as I write this, are living and dying in extreme poverty, I’d welcome your feedback on those important matters.

      Respectfully,

      Amy

    • Hi Guy,
      If your point is that as an affluent, well-educated American, I can’t know what it means to be a rural African living in extreme poverty, you’re absolutely correct. (Of course, unless you’re an African living on a dollar a day, neither can you.)
      But that doesn’t seem to be the point you’re getting at. Instead you’re making a lazy attack on me personally, implying that my affluence makes me a less credible or competent reporter. I don’t imagine there’s much I can do to change your point of view, but perhaps you’ll consider reading my book to see for yourself how committed I am not only to telling the story of extreme poverty, but also to revealing the complexities of trying to end that poverty.
      Yours, Nina Munk

      • Ashley Tuttle

        So sorry for Guys response Nina, It’s sad that people always seem to use personal attacks rather than intelligent arguments. It makes me wonder if they actually have any. Well done with the article I hope to get hold of your book soon.

  11. Why is it so difficult to undersand that bottom up nearly always works and top down usually doesn’t?

    • Amy

      Interesting, Alec. I wonder if Professor Sachs would say that his approach is indeed bottom up? Either way, I was struck (once again!) by how hard it is to have real – and LASTING – impact on the ground, even when you infuse a single community with millions of dollars!

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