Jeffrey Sachs' anti-poverty project is subject of new book

CorrespondentOctober 26, 2013 

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    Nonfiction The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty Nina Munk

    Doubleday, 260 pages

According to his detractors, economist Jeffrey Sachs hasn’t had all that much success in getting economies to work, but everyone admits that he can work a crowd.

The latter is true whether he is speaking at the United Nations or selling what The Economist calls “poverty porn” at rock concerts or even at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. Indeed, Sachs’s visits to these two North Carolina campuses in November 2006 had many of the trappings of stops on a musical tour – palpable energy, screaming fans, incantatory language, messianic message and egregious self-regard – even in the absence of Sachs’ like-minded friend, the Irish musician Bono.

The reason for Sachs’ Southern “gigs” in 2006 was to drum up student interest in his Millennium Villages Project (MVP), the subject of journalist Nina Munk’s important and absorbing new book. The MVP was launched in that year to test – or in Sachs’ view – to demonstrate the accuracy of his theories on how to reduce poverty in less developed countries. The project was designed as a response to the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2000.

These eight goals all dealt with promoting aspects of sustainable development in less developed countries: reducing poverty and hunger, improving education and health, empowering women, protecting the environment, and establishing global partnerships for development. Each goal included specific targets that were to be achieved by 2015. For example, the target of Goal 1 – eradicating extreme poverty and hunger – was to halve the proportion of the world’s population living in “extreme poverty” by 2015.

Sachs, a firm believer in the importance of foreign aid in ending poverty, envisioned the Millennium Villages Project as a relatively small-scale, five-year experiment, funded largely through outside aid, in about a dozen villages in 10 of the poorest countries of Africa. The hope, indeed expectation, was that with sufficient donor support, expert planning and strong leadership and execution on the ground, the villages and their surrounding areas would get a firm footing on the development ladder, allowing them in time to ascend the ladder into sustained growth.

Sachs believed at the time and continues to believe that the experiment, once it succeeded, was scalable, and that with enough aid money – perhaps $250 billion – extreme poverty and its social and health-related concomitants would be history. To his considerable credit, Sachs has worked hard to raise funds for and elevate the profile of the MVP.

In “The Idealist,” Munk traces the history of Sachs’ project and issues an interim report card on its progress. Focusing closely on two of the villages – Dertu in northeastern Kenya and Ruhiira in southwestern Uganda – she offers a mixed assessment of their track records since 2006.

She is quick to point out that life has improved in some important ways in these areas, but she gives most of the credit for the improvements to outside – and outsized – support from donors. Moreover, because Sachs and his associates refused to follow standard randomized research protocols in their “experiments,” it is impossible to determine whether Sachs’ strategy or other factors were responsible for much of the strong growth experienced by Africa over the past decade.

In Munk’s hands, “the Idealist” comes across at once as a gifted (if increasingly scattered) economist who is committed to a cause, as well as a rude, self-important bully who is less akin to a rock star than to Meredith Willson’s “Music Man,” Harold Hill.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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