‘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.