“The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty” by Nina Munk

By Mpumelelo Nxumalo, APJ

Jeffrey Sachs has a goal:  to end poverty in Africa by 2025, and according to Nina Munk, he is convinced that this can be done. Yet Munk’s account of what has come of the Millennium Village Projects, (Sachs’s brain child) tells of yet another foreign intervention in Africa that has left a lot to be desired, (at least up to date). The Millennium Villages were constructed by Sachs to be incubators of success in often failing contexts. Munk writes of a man fired up with infectious energy and a strong conviction that in five short years each Millennium Village could become a harbinger of hope and a model to be scaled up countrywide.

 The author writes that she had initially been assigned to spend 6 months following Sachs and reporting on the progress made by MVP but ended up spending about 6 years. She was eager to hear what Sachs had to say about how per capita incomes in Africa could be improved. Her objective was to trace the flow of aid money during which journey she recorded hours of notes and traveled to Mali, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and other places. She writes extensively about Dertu, a semi-nomadic region in the Somali part of Kenya, and Ruhira in Uganda both of which are also sites of Sachs’s Millennium Village Projects.

 Sachs, a gifted macroeconomist and celebrity gained fame after prescribing “radical fiscal and monetary discipline, so called shock therapy to countries emerging from communism.” He is credited with bringing the problems of global poverty to the mainstream. But the author offers a thought provoking account of the shortcomings of the ‘solutions’ he has prescribed, and falls short of calling these misguided. Although Munk does not explicitly espouse an opinion about the MVPs one cannot help but sense a veneer of skepticism from the way she ends each chapter. The stories she has chosen to highlight in the book all tell of a project that is racing against time and once donor funding dries up will leave many holding dust. Indeed Munk casts doubt on the viability of the Millennium Villages as evinced by Sachs own shift toward sourcing venture capital-type funding and embracing a market based approach to developing the villages. This was a radical turn in Sachs’s preferred donor aid prompted by the need to attract private investors.

 In one Millennium Village in Ruhiira (Uganda) Sachs was forced to act by what he saw as a ‘poverty trap’ which manifested in high rates of deforestation and a decline in arable land which when combined with high rates of fertility could only mean lower per capita incomes for future generations (a Malthusian conceptualization if I may say so). Sachs provided the farmers with fertilizer and maize seeds, which according to Munk had been a foreign crop to that particular region. After realizing successful harvests in Ruhiira Sachs believed that poverty would become a thing of the past in just 5 years. As he had promised the Ruhiira villagers, he met with president Museveni to gather his support to scale up nationally what he saw as cause for optimism in Ruhiira. Munk recounts the impassioned manner in which Sachs delivered his address in front of the president like he had done in front of the people of Ruhiira. But Museveni had other more pressing problems. His government was entangled in stalled peace talks with the ‘deluded leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony.

Aside from such a lack of support from the top, other problems befell Millennium Villages according to Munk. These included use of the treated bed nets provided by donors to help fight malaria in protecting goats as they were deemed to ‘hold more value for the pastoralists’. Munk also documents incidences of Millennium Village farmers who had been provided with maize seeds recording bumper harvests but dumping excess maize crops thereby distorting the market for maize. Other problems included lack of clear objectives; staff stretched too thin; lack of electricity (and fuel for generators) in hospitals; and continued reliance on donor funding. According to Munk, the Millennium Village Project, which was slated to last for five years was extended by a further 5.

Sachs dismisses as ‘unexpected artifacts’ the problems that have disrupted the Millennium Village agenda. By the end of the book however, one is led to the conclusion that these disruptive artifacts should have been predictable to an economist of Sachs’s caliber. Creating islands of success in a context characterized by tough climate, lack of capacity, competing donors with sometimes conflicting visions, and other things brings to question the sustainability of the Millennium Villages. According to Nina Munk, Sachs has already secured 11 million dollars in funding pledges (2/3 of which came from the Soros Foundation) for the second phase of Millennium Village Projects but much focus is now being placed on graduating the villages onto the government and the donor community. From reading Munk’s account of the reluctance of donors to support the project from the very beginning brings to question the success of handing these over to them after this phase. But Sachs remains hopeful.

Ngozika Amalu
Ngozika Amalu