Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Idealist by Nina Munk - Book Review

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk ( Doubleday, 2013, 272 pages $26.96) is either an admiring look at the hopes and aspirations Jeffrey Sachs has for his campaign to end world poverty or a stunning denunciation of the hubris it requires to think that the world can or wants to accomplish such an ideal. Perhaps it is both. Jeffrey Sachs has always been the smartest guy in the room. Early in his schooling he distinguished himself in school both for his excellence in mathematics and his ability to gain leadership positions because people liked and trusted him. Growing up in Oak Park, MI, he was the son of a noted labor and constitutional lawyer whom everyone thought would follow his father to the University of Michigan and Law School there, and into practice. Instead, his excellence in math led him to Harvard, economics, and becoming the youngest tenured professor at Harvard, mentioned at age 28 in the same breath with Lawrence Summers and Paul Krugman. The New York Times called him “probably the most important economist in the world.” Early in his career, Sachs engineered the economic turnarounds in Bolivia and Poland, but was unable to gain the cooperation of Russia to make similar changes there. His politics were conservative and his economics large, all-encompassing.

In 2001, Sachs was author of a World Health Organization report called Macroeconomics and Health: Investing in Health for Economic Development which apparently caused him to look critically at all the economic assumptions about poverty and world health. He realized that the economic theory under which he had previously functioned was inadequate to the vastness of the task of improving health and eliminating poverty in the third world. He altered his view of health policy from a moral issue to an economic one. He reasoned that saving lives makes money. The solution, therefore, to world poverty lay in doubling our world-wide investment focused on its elimination. In 2002 he left Harvard to become the Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia. His job he said, was to “be a pest.” He saw himself as an emergency physician, a “clinical economist.” 

Jeffrey Sachs

Sachs' goal has always been to “take complex challenges and bring to bear expertise in economics and other disciplines to find workable solutions.” A strong technocrat and persuasive advocate, he believes that people look at problems from a perspective of saying, “impossible, impossible, impossible, impossible, obvious.” He needs to keep pounding away at resistance until the impossible becomes inevitable. An initial gift of $5 million dollars enabled Sachs to undertake “extreme village makeover” and the Millenium Villages Project was born in Africa. Determining to enlist private donors, non-governmental organizations (NGO's), the United Nations, and individual countries' foreign aid establishments to undertake a gigantic effort to attack poverty and disease on all fronts, Sachs became a whirlwind of activity supported by a technocratic bureaucracy headquartered in N.Y. at Columbia.

Author Nina Munk, apparently an old Africa hand, chooses to bring her story to life by focusing on three African villages, in Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda as well as three portraits of each program's director. Each director emerges as smart, dedicated, educated, ambitious, and overwhelmed by the factors making his job nearly impossible to achieve. The Millennium Villages Project seeks to attack world poverty by establishing demonstration projects to attack health care, food supply, and education, struggling against the massive resistance to change found in each of these areas along with the environmental factors making the effort both necessary and seemingly impossible. Providing water, establishing hospitals, providing the people and equipment to staff them, changing age old farming practices, fighting off the physical effects of poverty, and so much more in projects of integrated effort emerges as a nearly impossible to achieve goal. And yet, with Jeffrey Sachs' genius as a fund raiser, cheerleader, and global-thinking leader, each project makes slow progress despite smaller and smaller resources being made available. The picture Munk paints of social and economic inertia, of people starving, dying, and fighting is heart rending, and inevitable. Meanwhile, Sachs emerges as a shrill, testy, driven, self-righteous, and difficult man. The story of the rise in hope and expectations, the disillusion which emerges, as well as the government and personal corruption and graft seen throughout the societies the Millennium Villages Project seeks to effect can only be described as heart-breaking. In the face of ignorance, violence, resistance, local politics, tribal thinking, and more, there is no hope here, despite the well intentioned efforts of the project directors and their staffs along with Sachs's increasingly shrill and desperate hectoring. The portraits of the Millennium Villages' local directors show smart, ambitious local people who strive to overcome local prejudice, culture, and poverty amidst poverty practically unimaginable to those who haven't been there. 

Nina Munk

Nina Munk is a Canadian born American journalist who is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, the author a three previous books and numerous prize winning article. Her earlier book Fools Rush In has been called the best book about the AOL – Time Warner debacle. The Idealist was inspired by an article profiling Jeffrey Sachs for Vanity Fair in 2007. She lives in New York City. The picture she paints of Jeffrey Sachs presents a man deeply committed to the cause of ending world poverty, and his own role in making it happen. He is linked to rock star Bono and celebrity actress Angelina Jolie in his quest, and has become celebrity advocate in his own right.

Jeffrey Sachs

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk ( Doubleday, 2013, 272 pages $26.96) is a cautionary tale about over reaching, hubris, unintended consequences, and the difficulty of making real change happen and persist. Sachs comes to be seen as a misguided master planner who simply cannot juggle all the balls without too many of them dropping. Perhaps the task itself is simply too large to be accomplished, but the reader must both admire and be horrified by the enormity of the ambition and difficulty of the task to win the battle against poverty and disease. The Idealist was provided to me by the publisher through Edelweiss: Above the Treeline. I read it on my Kindle.