SEATTLE – Bono calls the economist Jeffrey Sachs “the squeaky wheel that roars.” To me, Sachs is the Bono ofeconomics – a guy with impressive intelligence, passion, and powers of persuasionwho is devoting his gifts to speaking up for the poorest people on the planet.So it was no surprise to me that a journalist would find Sachs to be a compellingcentral character for a book – and a good way to draw readers into the potentiallydry subject of international development.
In The Idealist, Vanity Fair writer Nina Munk draws a nuanced portrait of Sachs andhis Millennium Villages Project (MVP) – a $120 million demonstration project intendedto show the world that it’s possible to lift African villages out of poverty througha massive infusion of targeted assistance. It would have been easy, and perhapsmore marketable, for Munk to draw a caricature, overly accentuating Sachs’snegative qualities at the expense of his great gifts. But she doesn’t. Munk spentsix years researching the book, getting to know Sachs well and living forextended periods in two of the 15 Millennium Villages. She clearly appreciatesthe importance and difficulty of what Sachs and his team are attempting to do.
Unlike most booksabout international development, Munk’s book is very readable and not long (260pages). I’ve told everyone at our foundation that I think it is worth taking thetime to read it. It’s a valuable – and, at times, heartbreaking – cautionary tale. Whilesome of the Millennium Villages have succeeded in helping families improvetheir health and incomes, Munk concludes that the two villages she spent themost time studying – Dertu, Kenya and Ruhiira, Uganda – have so far not lived upto Sachs’s vision.
Sachs didcome to the foundation, asking us to support the Millennium Villages. His pitchwas intriguing. He was picking a small handful of villages to be the focus of intenseinterventions in health, education, and agriculture – all at once. His hypothesiswas that these interventions would be so synergistic that they would start avirtuous upward cycle and lift the villages out of poverty for good. He feltthat if you focus just on fertilizer without also addressing health, or if youjust go in and provide vaccinations without doing anything to help improve education,then progress won’t be sustained without an endless supply of aid.