‘The Idealist’ Review

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs has been one of the most prominent and outspoken figures in the movement to end extreme poverty worldwide. Nina Munk presents us with an unflinching perspective of how difficult that goal has been for Dr. Sachs and his Millennium Villages Project (MVP). While this book is not exactly biographical, it does provide us with brief glimpses at the man behind this project, how the project has progressed since its inception and its ups and downs.

The MVP are an immense undertaking that brought many revolutionary ideas and financial support to reduce and eliminate extreme poverty and its many negative outcomes, like child mortality. From the description of some of the villages in the book, one might wonder at the wisdom of supporting and/or sponsoring them in first place. The three primary examples, Dertu, Kenya, Toya, Mali and Ruhiira, Uganda, faced numerous structural, geographical, and sociopolitical challenges from the outset that seemed insurmountable. These included lack of access to fresh water (even with engineering interventions considered), remoteness, and lack of interest from local political leaders. Despite these challenges, Munk reports some initial successes, but over time it appears that these efforts were not sustainable. The higher level challenges just seemed too overwhelming to overcome, though it may provide some individual-level benefits that would not have been possible otherwise, such as education and infrastructure. By the writing of the novel, two of the villages described by Munk were caught up in local conflicts and environmental challenges beyond the control of the MVP.

I would like to think that this project might have had more success if these high level, ecological challenges had not been as overwhelming. Regardless of the challenges, it is hard to evaluate how successful this project is as Munk points out in the last chapters of the book. This is due to the poor evaluation plan and data collection. There were no control villages established at baseline, they were not randomized, and the data were not rigorously collected according to critics.

This book is well worth a read if you are interested in international development, foreign aid, global health or ending poverty. It presents a candid narrative of the difficulties of working in low-income, underdeveloped countries and challenging some of the world’s most pressing problems of human suffering.

“No pudo evitar atropellar el peatón” – “He could not avoid hitting the pedestrian”

A common explicative narrative in Peruvian media reporting on pedestrian-motor vehicle collisions is that the driver could not avoid hitting the pedestrian because of the pedestrian’s imprudent and untimely crossing.  The driver is rarely blamed and is generally viewed quite sympathetically in the media.  There are of course exceptions to this, usually when bus drivers are the ones responsible for striking pedestrians with their vehicles or if the pedestrian is a VIP or related to a VIP. This attitude towards pedestrians needs to change.

I am not arguing that the pedestrians are completely innocent or that drivers are completely responsible; the circumstances are usually complex, but in general motorists in Peru need to adjust their attitude towards pedestrians and be more respectful of them.  A pedestrian is much more vulnerable to injury and fatality than a motorist in pedestrian-motor vehicle collisions, thus drivers have to learn to be more respectful and careful when there are pedestrians present.  In a dense urban megacity like Lima where there are over 8 million inhabitants the motorists there need to accept that the roadway is shared with both pedestrians and cyclists (a small but growing proportion of road users in Lima).  About 25% of all trips are walking trips and 50% are on public transit (as of 2004) and only 25% are in privately-owned vehicles (including taxis, personal vehicles, motorcycles, etc.).  These numbers are especially serious considering pedestrians were about 80% of Peru’s reported road fatalities in 2007 (at least of those who die on site, the surveillance system does not quite yet account for all who die later due to their injuries).

So what is the media’s role in changing these attitudes?  The narratives almost always rely only on the driver’s description of the incident; rarely do we hear the pedestrian’s side of the story because in the serious incidents getting reported in the media the pedestrian is already dead or under medical care.  Sometimes a witness or someone accompanying the pedestrian may contribute, but even they may not have directly observed what really happened.  Thus the news story being reported will be biased against the pedestrian, regardless of their culpability.  Of course a motorist does not want to be held responsible for striking someone, especially if the pedestrian dies.  I doubt most motorists had any intention of hitting a pedestrian, but they may be engaged in risky behaviors that predisposed them to being unable to control the situation when a pedestrian did try to cross (perhaps imprudently).  Journalists reporting on these incidents may lack knowledge about the biomechanics of pedestrian-motor vehicle collisions and their primary risk factors, thus they are willing to use this narrative that it was an accident that just happened without any way to change the fact that it happened.

Journalists reporting on these events need to really consider and question what the driver was doing before the incident.  If he was traveling too fast in an urban area where he could not stop in time then he could have avoided the collision if he had been going the speed limit or less.  He should have slowed down when he saw pedestrians trying to cross.  Pedestrians do often cross where and when they perhaps shouldn’t in Lima (though often they have no choice because the roads are often not designed to accommodate their transit needs) and drivers are aware of this fact, thus they need to accept that they need to travel more slowly when pedestrians are present.  If the driver speed was not the problem, it is possible he was doing some other distracting/impairing behavior like talking or texting on a mobile device, inebriated, or was tired.  The built environment cannot be ignored.  Lima’s street designs are not often conducive to safe pedestrian travel or behaviors.  I myself have at times found myself “trapped” and forced to cross unsafely because there were no options or warnings that the sidewalk I was taking would lead me directly into vehicle traffic with no options for crossing.

Overall, journalists need to consider the pedestrian perspective more and really question the driver’s motives for reporting that the collision was inevitable.