The Idealist

The Idealist (2013) by Nina Munk is a remarkable study of how the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) has gone. This project was launched by the brilliant economist Jeffrey Sachs. The book is a portrait of him and his theories and how they play out in practice.

The book is so good because it captures a very smart, passionate, well meaning man trying to change the world according to his own theories. Sachs is a famous economist who did brilliantly and then turned his ability and knowledge first toward reforming Easter Europe in Poland, where he helped and in Russia where he was not a success.

Sachs’ idea was that there is a poverty trap that could, with a fairly small amount of money, be alleviated village by village with a fairly costly but well planned intervention. He envisaged that by improving health, education and providing capital to seed development that villages in even the poorest areas could be put on the path to prosperity.

What he instead showed, fairly clearly, is that this approach doesn’t work.

He also, inadvertently showed his own hubris and that we don’t fundamentally understand how to rapidly increase wealth, or at least how to transform broken, corrupt, really poor countries into wealthy ones. It does happen, as in Korea, but it’s not something the world can just do.

The book provides a wonderful view of the progress of the MVP. People working on the ground and their trials and tribulations in obtaining money for a hospital, for schools and in creating things to sell are profiled. It’s an excellent view of what could be described of a microcosm of most aid to Africa over the past 50 years.

The criticism of Sachs from aid economists like Esther Duflo, the author of the fantastic book Poor Economics is ignored by Sachs. Sachs does come out poorly in regard to insulting those like Duflo and others who told Sachs his ideas had problems.

The book is fairly short, moving and fascinating. It’s well written and solidly researched. It would also be an excellent basis for a documentary. It’s definitely worth reading.

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